Commentary on the Gospel of
Today’s readings accompany the feast of the Chair of St. Peter, which celebrates the seat of authority within the Church. Today’s gospel reflects our Lord’s initial conferral of that authority upon Peter, and history has witnessed to its apostolic transmission across the ages. The readings for today indicate that this authority is not like other worldly authority, which is often crushing and aimed at conquest. Instead, it is the authority of a shepherd.
In the first reading, Peter provides an exhortation to other leaders in the church to exercise their shepherding authority well. They were to tend their flock not as dictators and overlords, but by moving among them in such a way that the examples of their lives would be revealed. Leading by example requires engagement, no?
In those times, the concept of tending a flock was probably more familiar than today, when animal husbandry is far removed from most urban dwellers. We rarely had sheep on our farm, but we have a sizable herd of cattle, which might also provide a meaningful touch point. A couple weeks ago, I noticed our cow herd acting nervously, running back and forth in their pens. And when a hundred large bovines start running together, you can hear it!
I put on my boots and went out to investigate. I stood on a mound in their midst and called out to them, and they all came to see me. As I spoke gently to them, their fears were calmed. I was able to stroke some of them as I walked through them, but I noticed that some still cast wary eyes on the pasture nearby. Sure enough, a coyote had ventured near the lot – and he was high-tailing it back to his den somewhere in the far reaches of the farm. (It turns out that the coyote knows the shepherd, too, though not in the same trusting way.)
The herd had reacted with fear for good reason. But with a shepherd nearby, they turned their attention toward listening. (Sometimes my wife and I even sing to them. They seem to like this, although I suspect they find it more amusing than musical.) Unfortunately, the human herd is not always so attentive. While good instincts are put into cattle from birth, humans depend on learning. And let’s face it, some bad lessons are being taught in these times. And sometimes, the good lessons are just not taking. We need help from our shepherds on many fronts.
Today’s Psalm reassures us that the Lord’s shepherding ways are capable of delivering the peace we need, in part because He is powerful enough to deal with threats from our enemies. Of course, within the Church we are dealing with other members of the same flock – sheep are leading sheep. Without the Holy Spirit helping all of us, we could not share in this confidence.
Yet our Lord’s promises in today’s gospel reflects this same reality of divine shepherding: “And I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.” The Lord knew full well about the fellows he was building with. Like the rest of us, they were flawed and weak, with only a spark of faith that needed tending. But he was still willing to build with them, tending that spark and keeping it burning through the ages.
It is hard to live in these times, but I doubt that they are unique in requiring the members of the Body of Christ to bear up under challenges. Let us resemble the best of our predecessors in clinging to our Shepherd and listening to the shepherds tending our flock. Let us also support and pray for our shepherds as best we can, as we also pray for one another. After all, we also have our own little flocks to tend, and leading by example is not so easy. Thanks be to God.
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