by Fr. John K. Antony of the Diocese of Little Rock
R. The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want. He guides me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk in the dark valley I fear no evil; for you are at my side with your rod and your staff that give me courage.
Have you seen that famous painting of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, carrying the straying sheep on his shoulders? I’ll never forget an explanation by Dc. Mike Henry, a good friend of mine, regarding that iconic image that completely changed my understanding of it. While on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Dc. Mike heard the local tour guide explain how shepherds herd their flocks of sheep, something called “animal husbandry.” If one of the sheep were to stray, for instance, the shepherd would go in search of it, find it, and then hobble one of its legs, and then put it on his shoulders and carry it home. In other words, that iconic painting is of a shepherd carrying a sheep because the sheep’s leg was broken. But you see, that painful lesson was necessary to teach the sheep not to stray.
But that wasn’t the end of the tour-guide’s story. For several weeks afterward, the shepherd would keep the sheep close to him, carry it with him everywhere, he would feed it for his own table, he would let it sleep in his tent, and he would gently nurse it back to health. You see, the pain that the shepherd caused the sheep wasn’t to hurt it but to help it not to stray and not to get eaten by wolves. It was a sign of the shepherd’s love. I bet every good parent knows exactly how such a shepherd feels: sometimes you have to say “no” to your children, correct them, and even punish them. Scott Hahn once said, “God loves us just the way we are, but he loves us too much to let us stay that way.” In other words, just like sheep we all have a tendency to stray, but just like the Good Shepherd, God brings us home, even if his love is a little painful at times.
One of the most famous lines of the whole Bible is the first line of Psalm 23, today’s Responsorial Psalm. It’s so well-known that even Catholics know it! It goes, “The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want.” But let me ask you: how does the shepherd satisfy our wants? Does he give us everything we crave and desire? Or rather, does he teach us to discipline our wills so that we actually want a little less, until we want only what's good for us, until we want only what the shepherd wants for us? Last Sunday, for example, on my birthday, I received 3 homemade cheesecakes, and boy were they good! But is that how the Good Shepherd satisfying my hunger? Heck yeah! No, just kidding - instead, the Good Shepherd teaches me, sometimes painfully, not to have everything that I want, but to want everything that I have; to shrink my wants to what I need to be holy, until I want what he wants.
Once there was a millionaire who collected live alligators. He kept them in the pool behind his mansion. He also had a beautiful daughter, who was single. One day he threw a huge party, and during the party he announced: “My dear guests, I have a proposition for every man here. I will give one million dollars or my daughter in marriage to the man who can swim across this pool of alligators and emerge unharmed.” As soon as he finished his last word, there was the sound of a large SPLASH. There was one guy in the pool swimming with all his might. The crowd cheered him on. Finally, he made it to the other side unharmed. The millionaire was impressed. He said, “My boy, that was incredible! I didn’t think it could be done! Well, I must keep my bargain. Which do you want, my daughter or the money?” The man replied, “Listen, I don’t want your daughter and I don’t want your money. I want the person who pushed me into that water!” So, sometimes, the Good Shepherd breaks our leg, but sometimes he pushes us into a pool filled with alligators. But he does that so we don’t want the girl or the money, but we only want him, like the man wanted the person who pushed him into the pool.
My friends, do you know when the Good Shepherd is closest to you, when he loves you the most? Most people would answer, “Of course, it’s when I’m healthy, wealthy and wise, when everything is turning up roses!” Well, that’s certainly true up to a point, but I would suggest that Jesus is even closer to you in the dark, depressing, and most difficult times. If I’m honest with myself, I can see how God’s grace worked wonders in my lowest moments: illnesses, broken relationships, failed exams in school, lost softball games last year(!), people sleeping through my sermons. I’ve learned that the Good Shepherd doesn’t always give me everything I want to make me happy, but he does give me everything I need to be holy. You see, Jesus has taught me to overcome my selfish wants until I want only him. And when I have Jesus, “there is nothing I shall want.” Can you hear that psalm in a new way now: “The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want”? If you have Jesus, what more could you want?
May I suggest a few simple ways to curb out appetites, our wants? For example, make sacrifices in what you eat or drink. Last week I went to a restaurant with some friends and I ordered a salad without any dressing. I said, “I’ll have a ‘naked salad.’ It’s the only time I get to say naked!” Want less dressing. If you’re married, look for ways to do what your spouse wants first, and then do what you want. Want less of your way first. Stop throwing away so much food and clothes and toys and stuff. Pope Francis calls us “a throw away culture,” that even throws away people like the poor and unborn babies. Want less stuff. Reduce your “carbon footprint,” by using less energy, like keeping your thermostat at 75 degrees instead of 68 degrees. Easy for a guy from India to say that! Want less comfort. Turn your cell phone off and take a detour from the information superhighway. Want less stimulation.
Discipline your will and curb your appetite so that you can say Psalm 23 in a new way, “The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.” Until you want only what the Shepherd wants. For a moment try to imagine your 3-year old child saying to you, “Mom and Dad, from now on I only want what you want for me.” Can you imagine that? Probably not. But that is exactly the meaning of the 23rd Psalm.
Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!
Originally published by Fr. John K Antony on Facebook, used with permission.