Sheep are mentioned in the Bible more than 500 times – more than any other animal. The obvious reason is the pastoral culture of the times in Israel – there were a lot of sheep around in the Middle East.
But sheep also make for a good image of those who follow the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob –but most especially followers of their most famous descendant: Jesus Christ.
The reasons being that sheep are biologically and anatomically defenseless. They do not have natural ways to protect themselves --- so they desperately need a shepherd.
Second, sheep often get themselves into trouble. Although sometimes sheep are stereotyped as being dumb – they are actually quite intelligent – but the reason they get into trouble is because they are followers – it’s just part of their herd instinct – so they desperately need a shepherd.
Sheep also get into trouble because of their sight. Sheep have excellent peripheral vision – they can see far on either side without turning their heads – but it is difficult for them to see what is directly in front of them.
So sheep often stray from the path to get a better look or because they are curious. They are easily sidetracked or lose their way. Sound familiar?
And of course it is their tendency to get distracted and lost that, again, they desperately need a shepherd.
Good shepherds in Jesus’ day were devoted to their sheep. They would talk – even sing to them – in order to calm them and make them feel secure. They would anoint them with oil as a repellent against pests.
A good shepherd provided nourishment, refreshment, and protection. Good shepherds were so involved with their sheep that they knew and called each one by name. They were willing to risk their own comfort and even their own lives – for the sake of their sheep.
This is the caring and sacrificial relationship Jesus had in mind when he says, “I am the good shepherd – I know mine and mine know me. They will hear my voice and there will be one flock, one shepherd.” Our good shepherd is a guide who can be completely trusted as we follow after him.
Once upon a time – a man fell into a deep hole and could not get himself out.
A sensitive person came along and said: “I feel your pain down in that hole.”
A practical person came along and said: “I knew you were going to fall into a hole sooner or later.”
A self-righteous person said: “You do know that only bad people fall into holes.”
A news reporter wanted an exclusive story on the hole, its origins, and the full scoop on the person who had fallen.
A self-pitying person said: “You haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen the hole I once fell into.”
An optimist came along and said: “Well, things could be worse.” While a pessimist said: “Things will get worse.”
But Jesus, on seeing the man – called him by name, took him by the hand – and lifted him out of the hole. . .
Jesus lifting us out of the holes we sometimes stray into --- what a good image to help us understand what Jesus means when he says: “I am the Good Shepherd.”
How often do we stray from the path of the Gospel – get sidetracked or lose our way – falling into sometimes very deep holes:
Unemployment, addiction, debt, loneliness, illness, concern for our future, worried about those we love, plagued by our past mistakes and present sins ---- life can be filled with deep, dark holes.
Christ is the Good Shepherd – and he is here to help us --- but he will never force himself upon us.
Jesus simply invites-------- invites us to hear his voice – invites us to take his hand – invites us to follow after him.
Do we have the courage as well as the humility to admit that we are trapped in a hole – and need Christ’s help? Are we able to extend our hands and hearts and allow Jesus to lift us up? Are we willing to allow the Good Shepherd to help us in our need?
Jesus said: “I am the Good Shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.” Do we hear his voice –and are we willing to follow after him?
Thomas. Doubting Thomas: that’s how we all know him, isn’t it – what we all call him. . . the one who tried to deflate the balloon of Easter joy. . .
Thomas. Doubting Thomas.
One moment in his life determining his reputation from that point on.
Why don’t we remember Thomas as Missionary Thomas – as he was the most active of all the Apostles in spreading the Good News of the Gospel – traveling to modern-day Turkey, Armenia, Iran, India – some think all the way to China. . .
Why don’t we remember Thomas as committed Thomas?
In John’s Gospel when Jesus wanted to go to Bethany to raise his friend Lazarus from the dead – the other apostles knew this was too near Jerusalem for Jesus to be safe as the Jewish officials were already plotting against him. Only Thomas was the one to say to the others: “Let us also go to die with him.”
Why not Thomas the master carpenter? It is said that Thomas specialized in making plows, yokes, pulleys, ships, carts, as well as houses. We probably had no idea about these talents of Thomas. But instead------- we do know that he doubted. . .
Why not curious Thomas? Later in John’s Gospel as Jesus explained that he was going to leave them, but they should not let their hearts be troubled because he is going to prepare a place for them – everyone else just sat there ------ but it was Thomas who said, “Master, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way.” And Jesus told them all, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” One of seven “I AM” statements in St. John’s Gospel. . .
We could even remember Thomas as faithful Thomas – for after he does see Jesus, without even having to put his fingers in Jesus’ hands or his hand into Jesus’ side, he proclaims: “My lord and my God!” – the strongest affirmation of faith that any of the apostles make in the four Gospels. . .
It turns out that Thomas should be known for his faith and zeal----
but instead it is Thomas. Doubting Thomas. One moment in his life determining his reputation from that point on. Perhaps it is just human nature to look for weakness, rather than strength – something to criticize rather than praise. . .
It was a dark and stormy night many years ago. Unknown to me, the storm had knocked out the electricity for an hour or so – so my alarm did not go off on time. The next thing I know, someone was knocking at my door to wake me to come for daily Mass – as I was already pretty late at that point.
For my remaining years at Holy Family, I often heard the daily Mass crowd begin a story with “remember that time Fr. Matthew was late for Mass??”
I was at Holy Family for nine years. . . a rough estimate would be that I had 1,728 daily Masses during that time. I was on time 1,727 times –and late once – and yet, “remember that time Fr. Matthew was late for Mass” is what stuck with people. . .
One moment in my life determining my reputation from that point on.
I’m sure you know the feeling, too. You lost something once, your forgot something once, you were late getting somewhere once,
you ruined a meal once ---- you forgot a name, a date, a phone number, an address -- once --- and then the mistake follows you-- if not for the rest of your life – at least for a time that is beyond reason.
We’re like a bunch of chickens in a coop looking for the weakest among us – because if everyone is picking on someone else – they’re not picking on us.
Is that why the disciples passed on this story of Thomas – to hide their own doubts??? Because if they had truly seen the risen Lord – why were they still cowering behind locked doors????
This is the second Sunday of Easter --- our spring training of Lent is over – and now it’s time for us to put the Gospel into practice. . .
Perhaps Pope John Paul II, in declaring this 2nd Sunday of Easter as Divine Mercy Sunday – knew that we are not going to get anywhere in our practice of Gospel Values unless MERCY is the sure foundation of our witness. When he established this feast, he simply called all of us to be “Apostles of Divine Mercy.”
MERCY: A love that responds to human need in an unexpected or unmerited or unearned way. . .
MERCY: a virtue that has at its core FORGIVENESS.
MERCY: a love which is benevolent, which is compassionate, which raises us above our weaknesses to the infinite heights of the holiness of God.
Pope Francis has said that Jesus Christ is the face of God’s mercy. And Jesus showed the mercy of God when he healed the sick, welcomed the stranger and pardoned those who persecuted and killed him.
And Jesus showed Thomas mercy – responded to him in an unexpected or unmerited way --- notice Jesus did not chastise Thomas in anyway, did not accuse him of being weak in his faith --- simply told him to do what he had to do in order to believe: “put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side: and do not be unbelieving, but believe.”
Jesus says to Thomas and to all those gathered that day ---- and to us who gather on this day:
“Peace be with you.” Jesus brings peace in the face of fears, pain – and yes, doubt. Jesus’ mercy knows no limits – because God’s mercy knows no limits.
Instead of getting down on Thomas’ shortcomings or any of ours – we should rejoice in the fact that the Risen Lord is the remedy for our ailments, and the answer for our unbelief --- and as we learned during our Lenten spring training: we are called to be like Jesus!
Author Peggy Noonan once wrote in the Wall Street Journal: In a way, the world is a great liar. It shows you it worships and admires money, but at the end of the day – it doesn’t.
It says it adores fame and celebrity, but it doesn’t, not really.
The world admires, and wants to hold on to, and not lose --- goodness.
It admires virtue. At the end it gives its greatest tributes to generosity, honesty, courage, mercy, talents well used, talents that – brought into the world, make it better.
That’s what it really admires.
It’s a good reminder, isn’t it? Your biggest impact won’t come from having lots of money, a fancy title, or a big house. It will come from your capacity to positively impact the people around you.
It will come from you being a merciful person.
It is said that Thomas’ dying words were:
“Lord, thank you for all your mercies. Into your hands I commend my spirit.”
As we continue to celebrate this Easter season – may we come to know all of God’s mercies – so that we can be merciful people to one another.