Today we celebrate Good Shepherd Sunday or Vocation Sunday. On vocation Sunday you often hear stories of the vocation of the preacher or some religious. Perhaps, I thought to myself, instead of sharing with you how much God has touched my life in my vocation, it may be more important if we reflect on how God wants to touch each of us here present through the Gospel of St John that we just heard proclaimed.
In the short passage that we just heard, that Lord said three times, “I am the Good Shepherd and I lay down my life for my sheep.” What is this Good Shepherd that Jesus is trying to tell us? Jesus is trying to tell us that His love for us is total and selfless and unconditional. Unconditional in the sense that, He is even willing to lay down his life and die for our sake.
Are we moved by such a truth that the Lord had just proclaimed to us? Many of us may say “not really because I heard this many times before”. I don’t think it is because we have heard this truth many times before that our hearts are not moved as they should. It is more probable that this truth is merely an intellectual assent on our part; and “intellectual assent” of the faith that expresses itself in coming for Sunday Masses, but remains buried and pushed to the background during the weekdays. Why is this so? One main reason is because our idea of happiness is distorted. And one of the main reasons of why our idea of happiness is distorted is because of the secular values that we have been soaking in from the multi-media.
Have we come across people who seem to have everything in life: a good job, financial stability, good children, good spouse and yet never seemed to be satisfied? They always seem to be experiencing a certain inner restlessness about life. They are also not able to experience the peace that they long so much for, even if their spouses are so good to them. I’ve come across people who knows how blessed they are to have such a wonderful spouse, yet they are not able to receive the goodness and the love of their spouse because of some unresolved pain and hurts that they have within them, or perhaps because of some distorted meaning of what happiness in life is all about.
Fr Philip Heng,S.J. as a Jesuit Scholastic in the Philipines
Many years ago when I was a young scholastic in the Philippines, a nephew of one of our Jesuit, a young man of 21 years old, brilliant, good looking, a beautiful fiancé, very well off; his family has given him a big house with 3 maids, huge car, but he shot himself to death. At the funeral Mass his father shared, “We thought we have given our son everything he needed in life, but we failed. Through this painful experience we have learnt that we failed to give him what he really needed in life; that is our love. We’ve been travelling too much and we have forgotten to give him what he needed most, and that is our love and also to teach him how to love God.
Have we also heard of people who seem to be suffering so much in great pain, but able to find peace in their hearts? Over the 8 ½ years that I’ve lived in the Philippines for my studies as a scholastic, every week I would go out to the poor areas, the Barios, to visit the poor as my Sunday apostolate. There’s this family, a lady called Nida that I got to know. She was in her early 30s; she has four children - the youngest one was in her womb. When I visited her one Sunday, I saw her carrying 2 huge bucket of water. I asked her to be careful as I was concerned that she may fall and hurt herself or even suffer a miscarriage. Nida smiled at me and said, “It’s okay Brother, this is life.”
The next Sunday when I went to visit her, I found out that Nida’s husband was killed when he tried to stop a fight of his friends at work. He was the bread winner; a construction worker. Nida was too poor to have any savings. She does not even have the money to put food on the plate, let alone pay for the 12,000 pesos that the funeral expense would cost. She smiled at me and said, “God will provide.” True enough, two days later, on the day of the funeral, there was a coffin. I was seated in a jeepney heading towards the cemetery. The driver was the boss of Nida’s husband. I asked him, “Who paid for the coffin?” He said, “Brothers, a few of us, among the workers, collected money and paid 4, 000 pesos for the deposit.” “So who will pay the balance of the 8, 000 pesos?” He smiled at me and said, “God will provide.” Later, I asked Nida, knowing that she had no money at all, “How are you going to provide for your children? She smiled at me again and said, “God will provide.” Some years later, I could see that Nida was still very much alive; her children seem to be growing up healthily. I asked her how did she survived. She said, “Well, neighbours gave me food, I tried to go to some homes to wash clothes to earn some money.” Again she smiled and said, “God will provide.”
I think, such a deep faith in God like that of Nida, despite the suffering and pain she had to go through is a faith many of us has not experienced before. And, one of the main reasons why our faith has remained buried and dormant in us is because many of us have a distorted view of what happiness in life is. God created all of us in His image and likeness. And so, He planted in the depth our hearts His goodness and His love. However, such divine goodness and love has been suppressed for too long. But, if this goodness of God is brought to the surface it would be transformed into a godliness, like that of Nida, where we would be able to go beyond our pains and be rooted in Christ.
We are each challenged to grow in the goodness and godliness that God has created and planted in our hearts. Whether we are a lay person, priest or religious, we need to challenge ourselves constantly to bring this out of us in order to live a fuller and more meaningful Christian life. We need to question and reflect on our life and ask ourselves, “How have we been living our lives?” The fact that we have been living and doing things daily for the past years of our life in a certain way does not necessarily mean that we are living our lives in the way that God wants us to live. Everyone of us, without exception, need to challenge ourselves to face the truth of ourselves and also to remind ourselves that at the depth of our hearts and life, God is there.
If we do not want to challenge ourselves, then our faith can become complacent. We would be like a frog sitting in a damp and dark well, but not feeling the need to get out of the well, to breathe of the fresh air, feel the sunshine and to sense the beauty that is outside the well. And this is because the frog has become comfortable with living in the darkness of the well.
Jesus the Good Shepherd, has reminded us three times today that He loves us so much that He is willing to lay down His life for us. So, if we go back to the basics, if we go back to the inner reality of where God has planted His goodness and faith in our hearts, and beg Him to reveal Himself to us, we would discover that Jesus is a compassionate God. He would never be judgmental and harsh on us. In fact, He would simply say, “Its okay, try harder, if you take one step at a time, the goodness that I have planted in your heart will grow in to a godliness.”
In saying these, I’m not preaching a pious spirituality for retreatants. I personally know many parishioners who dare to break the mould of their complacent state and reach out to discover the beauty of God in their lives. How do they discover this goodness of God? We must first recognise that there is such a goodness that God has given us. Second, and more importantly, we need to learn to share what we have with others. All that we have are gifts from God. We need to thank God because He has given us so much in life. Do not take God’s blessings for granted.
If our faith is expressed in deeds, then the goodness of God that is in our hearts would surface and come forth. Then what has been suppressed for so long would grow and blossom. The challenge of the Good Shepherd for each of us today is to be persons who are life giving; persons who are the light and hope to others. For this, we will receive the “new strength” that God would give, as we prayed in the opening prayer at the beginning of this Mass. We will then be able to go beyond our comfort zones of what we have been used to and discover God’s will of wanting us to live a “godliness-faith” that brings and mirrors Christ to others.
These good parishioners that I’ve been speaking of, tell me that when they discover this godliness in their hearts, their marriage is different. While they may still have their common problems, difficulties and challenges in their marriage vocation, they are somehow more able to manage any disagreements and quarrels. They said, “When there are disagreements, we are able to look at the positive and the goodness in our spouse and children, instead of insisting on who is right or wrong.” That is the sign of the spirit of God within us. “Moreover,” they add, “we are also able to go forward beyond the comforts of their homes to reach out to the needs of those who are aged, sick, dying, to the needs of the parish, teaching catechism and offer whatever help that is needed. In being able to do this, we are then able to find the deeper meaning and joy of the married vocation that we have never previously experienced before. Giving is a joy.
Unfortunately, this truth has been distorted by the secular society that constantly draws us to do the opposite. How often have we heard people say, “What is in there for me?” Secular society wants us to focus on our own needs. But Jesus said, “No, that’s not the faith that I’ve been teaching you.” You should serve and lay down your lives for the needs of others.
Fr Philip Heng,S.J. at All Night Vigil for Vocations, Jesuit Novitiate, Singapore
When I first join the Society of Jesus, 23 years ago, I too had my apprehension of what religious life would mean and could be for me. Today I would say with much gratitude to God that my religious life, as a Jesuit priest and religious, has been the happiest and most beautiful and the most fulfilling vocation that I can ever imagine my life to be. I feel so honoured to be called by God to be His instrument.
Such a religious vocation demands that we give ourselves totally for the sake of others because of our love for God. This is the same in a married vocation, which is to give yourselves selflessly, like Christ, for your spouse, your children, family and (may I add), beyond your home to the needs of others. If you do this, your married vocation would blossom into a godliness that would remind us of what the Good Shepherd is all about. So let us remind ourselves today, that all of us are constantly challenged; regardless of whichever vocation we are in, by the Good Shepherd, to be totally selfless, like Him. It is only when we are able to live in this manner that we can say that we are the true sheep of the Good Shepherd.
Philip Heng, S.J.