Being a shepherd is not a glamorous job and it’s certainly not an easy one. It’s hard, physical work that requires 24 hour vigilance. Being a Good Shepherd is even tougher. A good shepherd not only herds his sheep, he knows the needs of each one of them. He knows how to care for them; how to nourish them and protect them from all sorts of predators that lurk in waiting.
I recently read an article about a joint study conducted by Harvard and Columbia Universities that covered 20 years of data. The study tracked over 1 million fourth grade students into their early adulthood. It focused on the difference that was made in the student’s life from being assigned a highly rated 4th grade teacher. The difference between having a strong teacher or a poor one was dramatic – much like the difference Jesus describes between having a good shepherd or a hired hand tend your sheep.
Students assigned a “good” teacher were 1.25% more likely to attend and graduate from a 4 year college. They will earn, on average, $25,000 -$50,000 more in their lifetime and will be less likely to become pregnant or to father a child as a teenager. Interesting enough, the study also showed that students assigned a poorly rated 4th grade teacher had an experience that was equivalent to missing 2 days of school every week of the school year.
Jesus the Good Shepherd teaches us a lesson in leadership that’s centered on serving others. In St. John’s gospel Our Lord gives us a model of selfless service to follow. The good 4th grade teacher is very much like Jesus, the Good Shepherd. Good teachers place service (in the work of educating our children) ahead of the stature associated with more glamorous occupations. They know each of their students on a personal level and go out of their way to help struggling students keep up with the rest of the class. Good teachers, like good shepherds, tirelessly help everyone in the class succeed and they never play favorites. Although their efforts may be unseen to others, the shepherding results achieved by a good teacher are clearly visible.
Each of us at times needs the reassuring guidance of Jesus, our shepherd in our life. But sometimes he calls us to be shepherds to others who need our direction, our care or our protection. Our Lord asks us to recognize that the gifts and abilities we’ve received from God have been entrusted to us to fulfill our own vocation as a ‘good shepherd’ to our brothers and sisters.
As parents, we shepherd our children in developing the moral values they need to live a good life and avoid the wolf-like perils of sin in the world. At times, we are the voice of the shepherd warding off those who target the rights of the unborn and the helpless in our society. We embody the care and concern of Jesus, the good shepherd, when we freely give of our self in taking care of those who are isolated from us by sickness or despair.
It’s no coincidence that the Church has designated today as “World Day of Prayer for
Vocations.” We need more shepherds! We often think that praying for vocations means praying for someone else to accept the call to the pastoral service of a religious or priestly life. But it’s much more than that. Today we also offer our prayers for each other, the “lay” shepherds of the world: the teachers, the doctors, policemen, parents, civil servants, volunteers and everyone who places some part of their life at the service of others.
The task of shepherding is selfless and demanding work. Jesus asks us to be the visible
face of the Good Shepherd in the world. He challenges us to move beyond our fears and self-interests by bringing his compassion and concern to those who need it – our family, our friends, and our neighbors.
As you think about how God has asked you to help him in shepherding his flock
– Consider whether your actions are more like those of a good shepherd or of a hired hand,
– Ask God to give his wisdom and perseverance to the men and women who have dedicated their lives to doing His work in the world, and
– Pray that each of us will heed the call to our own “shepherding” vocation.
We have the model of Jesus the Good Shepherd to follow. And if we follow it, like the good 4th grade teacher, each one of us can make a dramatic difference in the lives of those entrusted to our care.