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agoodshepherdI just spent about a half hour reading on the internet about sheep. I never got past the basic information about things like their color (some are very dark brown while most are white), life expectancy (10 – 12 years), amazing peripheral vision (270-320 degrees) which allows them to see behind them, two sets of teeth, excellent hearing and scent glands in front of their eyes and between their toes!!

As I read of their history and the places where they are found (mostly now in Australia, New Zealand, south and central South America and the British Isles) and of their habits, I realized how little I know of these members of the animal kingdom. Much of what I know is from shopping for sweaters, from a few movies about sheep farmers and – of course – from Scripture.

Today, the “Solemnity of Christ the King” offers Scripture texts that use sheep as a metaphor to speak of the kind of king we envision as the “Lord of Heaven and Earth.” The gospel (MT 25) describes a king who rules not with an iron hand but one who “separates the sheep from the goats” at the end of time with the law of love. The measure of this kind of justice is care for the neighbor: feeding, clothing, sheltering and visiting the sick and imprisoned. The surprise is the revelation that when we think our love of neighbor is just simple human charity and do it naturally, God sees it as “superhuman,” a godly act. Or maybe there is no difference…

Of the most universally recognized Scripture passages, those that describe God in the role of shepherd – today in Ezekiel 34 and Psalm 23 – are most familiar. Thus, it was not Jesus that first conjectured God’s action in this way; it had been part of the tradition for centuries before his time. Throughout all the tumult of the history of the “chosen people” (among whom we now count ourselves) the thread of God as shepherd has been the model for ruler and servant as well. And we, as God’s flock, can be assured that we will be cared for as those in the charge of a “good” shepherd are. Whether we stay close in the sheepfold or wander off, we can be sure we will always be under the eye of the One who comes searching for us until we are found.

Why, then, would we not care for one another as we ourselves are always cared for? “God is God and we are not,” we might answer. “There is so much hunger and homelessness and illness in the world; how can we solve it all?” “You aren’t the only sheep in the flock. Stay with the flock and just do your part,” I hear God saying to us. “Follow my lead and don’t feel like you have to do it all. Just do your part, and leave the rest to me.” Put that way, it might just be a question of exercising our humanity after all…