“I know my sheep,” our parish priest said to me recently after observing that he didn’t see me at Mass over the weekend. I hastily assured him that I had attended but at a Mass he didn’t preside over. I guess some might infer that he was checking up on me, but I took it mean that I was known and loved. My presence at Mass is noticed. It matters that I am there. My parish priest knows his sheep and if one is missing, he asks about it. I’ve heard him say the same to others. He knows us and cares about us.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd. This metaphor was meaningful to the people of his day when shepherds and goatherds were a thing and it doesn’t lose its meaning for us. I don’t look out across the hills to see a shepherd peacefully tending to his sheep. I don’t hear the shepherd calling. I don’t see the sheep recognize his voice and follow. But I know about these things. I desire to follow my Shepherd. I desire to be known and watched over. I want to be cared for. I want to be led. I want to believe that if I go astray (and I’m confident I will) that someone will come looking for me. Someone will miss me. I want to believe that I am valuable. I think we all desire these things and actively look for them.
In his supreme brilliance God made it simple. He knows we are just sheep after all. He gave us the best possible shepherd, Jesus. In his divinity, Jesus can keep track of all gazillion of us. He knows us better than we know us. He misses us when we wander off, entranced by the shiny things of this world, and he never stops calling us back to him. We are not a number to him. We are named. We are known. We are loved. Deeply.
But the shiny things of the world are a distraction. They glitter and glimmer and seduce us into thinking they are what brings meaning to our life. The stuff in our life makes us feel validated. If I drive the fancy car and have a big kitchen I fit in. I demonstrate my worth by my on-trend clothes. I present an image to my world that I am valuable. See how great I look? See how awesome my car is? Don’t you want to be my friend? Don’t you want to be around me?
And it appears to work, until it doesn’t. The trouble with this attitude is that it takes tons of effort to maintain. I have to be seen. I have to be out there. I have to live up to the expected persona. There’s not much room for error. If I slip up, I am judged. My value is based on my external presentation, not my heart.
I started to tumble into this a few years ago. I thought that if I looked a certain way and hung out with certain people and showed up at events I would be valued. People would want to be with me. I’m afraid I just seemed desperate. I didn’t feel known and loved. I felt empty and insecure. It was on a vacation with people I thought I could be friends with that I realized how unhappy I was. It wasn’t them. It was me. I was surrounded by people and felt alone. I needed my Shepherd and, true to his word, he came after me. He brought me back to his flock and taught me how to be a good sheep. He taught me to rely on him. He taught me to trust him and he surrounded me with other good and holy people who think I’m pretty great just the way I am. They take time to know my heart. They affirm me. They know me and love me and through those relationships and through prayer I have been able to know and love Jesus more.
Jesus will absolutely look for us. He calls us every day. He wants us to hear his voice and follow him. The shiny things of this world are just that: of this world. They don’t bring us anything. They are empty impostors. Jesus is the only one who make us valuable. Jesus is the shiniest of all. Jesus loves us, knows us and misses us when we stray. He knows all his sheep and he counts each of us in that number.