The Fulanis of the northern region of Nigeria are known for their dexterity in cattle rearing. In fact, it is a well-known tribal characteristic that most male children learn the art from a very tender age. A little boy could lead a herd consisting of many cattle with minimum supervision; he only needs to make some audible sounds and use a long cane intermittently, and the herd would be moving in the desired direction.
Once upon a time, a Fulani man took two of his sons out to the field to teach them how to control and lead a herd of cattle. He began by teaching them how to lead one cattle. According to his instruction, if someone can monitor and drive one cattle the individual would be able to lead a herd of cattle no matter how numerous they could be.
During the lesson, one of his sons took an interest in running after some grasshoppers in the field, and his father would call his attention, but he would get distracted after some time. The lessons over, the man asked his sons to demonstrate what he taught them. The one who as paying attention went first and did exactly what the father taught. The cattle obeyed his instructions and did not resist him.
When the one who was distracted went to lead the animal, he got all the possible resistant from the cattle. He took his time to flog it several times, but it refused to move. He went further to pull the cattle by the rope around its neck and instead of following the boy, the cattle dragged him along to the extent that he felled and it continued to drag him until his father rescued him. It was evident that the kid was distracted during the time his father was giving them instructions; hence he used the wrong method and instead of leading the cattle the animal led him on by dragging him along.
During his recent Apostolic Visit to Egypt, Pope Francis gave a heart-warming instruction to priests and religious in what he termed “the seven daily temptations”:
- The temptation to let ourselves be led, rather than to lead.
- The temptation to complain constantly.
- The temptation to gossip and envy.
- The temptation to compare ourselves to others.
- The temptation to become like Pharaoh that is to harden our hearts and close them off to the Lord and our brothers and sisters.
- The temptation to individualism:
- The temptation to keep walking without direction or destination.
A very attentive reflection on this list of temptations leaves nobody in doubt that the Pope was talking about shepherds who have the duty of taking care of various flocks and the demands of being good shepherds.
It is also important to note here that anyone who has control over anyone or anything, secular or religious, is a shepherd. So, our reflection is inclusive of everyone, priests, religious, parents, teachers, mentors, bosses, and indeed everyone whose position or function places him or her above others.
The First Reading today (Acts 2:14a, 36-41) gives us some essential qualities of a good leader; if you like a good shepherd personified in the Apostle of Peter. Firstly, he led others in proclaiming the truth and bearing witness. He sets the pace in the right direction. In the passage, we could also see that after his speech, the people were led to repentance and baptism. Three thousand souls accepted Christ on that day.
A good shepherd leads the flock to the right places; to the region of life and light. The Responsorial Psalm (23) among other things says: “He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.” A good shepherd is selfless and dedicated. He or she does not leverage on constant complaints like the Pope mentioned in the list of temptations.
The work of leading involves sacrifice and selflessness. Our Lord Jesus Christ tell us that the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:11). This means seeking for the good of others rather than for oneself. It means going the extra mile. In doing this, a good shepherd does not compare himself or herself to others; doing so could also lead to envy and jealousy as the Pope mentioned.
Often we try to measure our success by looking at the success of others. Our tasks and duties are different; we might have the same mission but different visions. In life, you can only be whom God has designed you to be. You cannot be you and be another person at the same time. Be content with yourself (Hebrew 13:5).
One powerful element we can acknowledge in the Gospel today (John 10: 1-10) with our Lord’s identification of himself as the gate for the sheep is the protective compassion that runs through his words. Now a gate is an immobile facility; it is always there every time; day and night. The gate serves a facility for security and protection. As the door, he is always available to receive and to protect. The Psalmist (121:4) says: “He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.”
The docility (openness) that is characteristic of a door discourages all forms of the hardness of heart like in the case of Pharaoh as the Pope indicated in the list of temptations. It is the good shepherd’s docility that endears him to the sheep and makes them follow him when they hear his voice. The hardness of heart is a clear indication of the absence of love. Shepherding without love is like building without foundation. Love conquers and endures all things; love is eternal, and God is love (1 Cor. 13: 7; 1 John 4:8).
The good shepherd knows the sheep and also knows where to take them. Knowledge is power. He knows where the green pastures are and he leads the sheep to that location. The Pope mentioned that one of the temptations we face is walking without direction and destination even as people are following us.
Knowing the direction and the destination are two important navigational tools of a good shepherd. Though the path may not be smooth, he still leads them on; the psalmist calls it “the valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4). The little boy in our story was unable to lead the cattle because he lacked the needed knowledge and ended up being led; that is what we mean by “sheeping” the shepherd.
Today, there are numerous instances of “sheeping” the shepherd. Sheeping, the shepherd, happens when we fail to uphold the truth and fairness. “Sheeping” the leader involves giving orders to the leader of detecting the pace of leadership. “Sheeping” the shepherd happens when the sheep loses confidence and trust in the Shepherd.
There is no gainsaying the fact that many places in our world are infected by bad shepherds. We discover this situation in the rising rate of bad leadership in various families, communities, towns, religious and secular institutions, and in many nations.
Another side of this is the prevalence of bad sheep starting from our homes, communities, institutions and indeed everywhere. In most cases, these sheep are perpetually incorrigible and are determined to “sheep” the shepherd instead of being “shepherded” by the shepherd. Today children give orders to their parents while teachers obey their students. Some people in most places run both the Church and the priests (pastors).
There is a need for both the shepherd and the sheep to take their respective positions and function according. Let the shepherd lead with knowledge and total dedication and let the sheep pay attention and follow; it takes the two to make things right.
I wish to conclude with Pope Francis’ words to all shepherds during his visit to Egypt: “May you be sowers of hope, builders of bridges and agents of dialogue and harmony.”
Have a glorious Good Shepherd Sunday and remain a good sheep/shepherd.