Today’s feast focuses on the heart as the great symbol of compassion and love. Specifically we are reminded of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, of God’s Son who loves us so intensely and so deeply that only his death on the Cross for us could be the adequate expression of that love. We are left with the lingering question: how are we to respond to such love?
The images of the Sacred Heart and the Good Shepherd are often linked together. Both images tell us everything we need to know about Our Lord’s love and care for his people.
The shepherd’s job is to take care of his sheep. When the shepherd finds that his sheep have been scattered, the first thing he does is to go out looking for them. His first concern is to rescue them from danger and bring them back safely to the fold where they will be safe. He tends to any sheep that have been hurt and he feeds them. He redoubles his watch so that all the sheep can have rest and peace. Essentially, a shepherd keeps himself focused solely on his sheep, looking out for their welfare and even putting himself in harm’s way in order to protect them. This is what a good shepherd does.
And this is exactly what Jesus our Good Shepherd has done for us through his death and resurrection. He has rescued us from death. He has given us his healing and protection. He has brought us safely into his fold, the Catholic Church. And he continues to lay down his life for us, working in and through us so that his flock, the Church, can be fully restored, united, and at peace.
Jesus our Good Shepherd also cares for each of us personally. His heart is saddened when we wander away from him or become lost. He comes looking for us as if we were his only charge, and he doesn’t stop looking for us until he finds us. And when he does find us, he doesn’t scold us or punish us for being disobedient and stupid, rather he rejoices over us and lavishes his love on us; he does this because he’s so happy to have found us, and he brings us home where we belong.
Too often we think that we must be punished for our sins. Now I suppose this is the human way because when someone offends us or commits a crime against our society we want them to pay for it by being fined, or put on probation or sent to prison. After two thousand years of teaching to the contrary we just can’t bring ourselves to visualise God as the father in Our Lord’s parable of the prodigal son. Here is a young man who deserves to be punished for his selfishness and ingratitude. The son realises this himself and he fully expects to pay a price for his utter selfishness, which he accepts. But what does his father do? While his son was having a good time in the fleshpots of the city, his father was worrying about him, he has to endure sleepless nights, he keeps looking through the window to catch a sight of his son, and he even stands in the road hoping his son will appear on the horizon. And when he does see his son, bedraggled and in rags trudging back home with his head bowed in shame and disgrace, he runs down the road to greet him, he embraces him, and kisses him, and welcomes him back home where he belongs. The son doesn’t even have time to deliver the little speech he has prepared. His father doesn’t berate him, or make him feel guilty or worthless, he is welcomed home as someone who was dead and is now alive – like a sheep who was lost and is now found.
It is human to seek retribution and to punish the wrongdoer. And in this sense there are always consequences when we sin or break the law. Even though we may be forgiven there is always a price to be paid. And yet on the other hand, it is divine to forgive, and even to forget the sin – because this is what God does – when God forgives our sin he also chooses to forget it – it’s as if the sin never took place – that’s what reconciliation with God means, this is the great blessing we receive in sacramental confession. If only we could be more like God in our ability to forgive and forget the sins of those who offend us, then the world would be a much better place to live in.
And so today on this wonderful feast, let us ask Our Lord to give us a glimpse of the overwhelming love that fills his Most Sacred Heart. May the intensity of that love penetrate our own hearts so that we can know how safe we are in his care.