Jesus said to the Pharisees ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away – and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.’
Jesus said: ‘The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.’
As a parish priest I am often asked about my ‘job’. People speak of the working hours and other conditions of ‘employment’. These conversations are generally supportive, but they also miss the point. Parish priests are not the only ones who ‘work’ long hours, and whose working lives do not compare with the norms laid down by employment law. Parish priests respond to God’s call by offering themselves up for a life of service in Christ’s name. Whilst there are certainly positions that carry greater authority and responsibility within the priesthood, there is no ‘career path’ to be followed. The invitation to move into one of those more senior posts comes from God, and not from our ability to write a sparkling application form. The life of a parish priest can be challenging, but it is rooted in Christ’s model of love and service, and not that of the hired hand who does not care for the sheep.
A short conversation with any parish priest should leave you in no doubt about their sense of being called, but that calling is not for clergy alone. Christ calls us all into a life of self-sacrificial love and service. We are all called to care for those who are weaker than ourselves. We are all called to defend those who are beset by the wolf, that is those who are assailed by temptation and evil. We are all called to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, offer hospitality to the stranger, clothe the naked, look after the sick, visit the imprisoned and isolated. In fact, we are called to accept and respond to Christ’s call into the priesthood of all people.
Today we are offered the assurance that Christ is the Good Shepherd, the one who does not run away when the going gets tough. Today we are challenged to join Jesus in this ministry of unwavering love and service … even when it is not that convenient. Today we are challenged to be Christ-like in all we say and do, and not to join those who ‘can’t be bothered’ or who seek the ‘easy road’ that takes us in the opposite direction from our Christian responsibilities.