Today’s Gospel reading is taken from the tenth chapter of St. John’s Gospel in which Jesus refers to himself as the Good Shepherd. Because of this, the Fourth Sunday of Easter is often referred to as Good Shepherd Sunday. Fittingly, it is also a day when the Church asks us to pray for vocations to the consecrated life and priesthood.
To fully appreciate this beautiful gospel passage, we need only to listen to Jesus’ words spoken earlier in the chapter. He defines a good shepherd as one who loves his sheep and is prepared to die for them.
In Jesus’ time, sheep and shepherding were a regular part of life in Palestine. This is why frequent images abound in both the Old and New Testaments. We’re probably all familiar with Psalm 23, ‘The Lord is my shepherd. We are also familiar with Jesus’ comforting words: ‘Fear not, little flock, for it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom,’ as well as Jesus’ parable describing the Final Judgment as the separation of the sheep from the goats.
There were also no enclosed areas for grazing, and good pasture was not plentiful. During the day, sheep were taken to wherever there was pasture, led by the shepherd who spent the entire day looking after his flock.
At night, the sheep stayed in the village in a sheepfold, a walled enclosure supervised by a doorkeeper. In the morning, the shepherds would come to take their flocks, and the doorkeeper opened the door to them. They each called their own sheep and led them out to pasture on the hills. This recalls what Jesus says in the earlier part of the chapter, ‘The sheep follow because they know the voice of their shepherd. They do not recognize the voice of a stranger’.
The role of ‘doorkeeper’ in Scripture is used as an image of the leaders of Israel, who should be welcoming the one who owns the sheep, the only one who can give them true pasture. This is why Jesus also describes Himself ‘as the door for the sheep’. He is the one sure route by which the sheep ‘may have life to the full’. The door controls the path by which the sheep can find good nourishment throughout the day, as well as the path which leads them back to safety against the dangers of darkness.
It is only after he has said this that Jesus goes on to speak of himself as the Good Shepherd. His goodness is shown in contrast to the ‘hired hand’, who has no commitment to the flock. Someone who at the moment of truth, when the wolf is spotted, runs away leaving the flock unprotected.
The prophet Ezekiel in the Old Testament had some very severe criticisms of these selfish shepherds who fed themselves and their friends but left the sheep to starve. He has a stern warning to all pastors and those in authority that the flock comes first! Soon after taking office, Pope Francis made a wonderful observation acknowledging that a good pastor should smell like the sheep because the good shepherd is always accompanying his sheep!
On a lighter note, it’s said that a good pastor deserves five weeks of vacation each year – and that a bad pastor deserves 10 weeks to give his congregation a vacation from him!
Like us, sheep are not always the most docile or obedient creatures and can be quick to stray. However, a good shepherd will seek out and rejoice in finding a lost sheep and bring it back into the fold! For us, belonging to the spiritual flock of Jesus is to respond to his voice. This means much more than simply reading or hearing about Jesus – which is nice, but not enough! The decisive moment comes when we go beyond the testimony, ideology, and piety and begin to discover Jesus at the center of our lives in a profoundly intuitive and trusting manner, much like the sheep who hear their shepherd’s call and simply follow.
This type of trust doesn’t require us to go through some “rational” process before deciding to respond. On the contrary, there is a gradual, instinctual, and whole-hearted recognition of Jesus’s call. There is an understanding that He has already demonstrated his love and care for us through His Cross and Resurrection, which is precisely what we celebrate during the Easter Season!
For Christians, this kind of trust is a spiritual bond stronger than death that can endure any trial. As Jesus tells us, nothing and no “one can take you out of my hand.” The only precondition on our part is that we continue to trust the “way of Jesus,” which means that we use our freedom, intellect, and strength to be loving and caring shepherds in our world. We do this most effectively in the context of an encouraging and supportive community and with the nourishment of the Eucharist and the Sacraments.
When Jesus concludes by making the dramatic claim that “the Father and he are one,” Jesus is not just assuring us of his equal status in the Trinity of Divine Persons. He’s also confirming that the life he offers us is one that shares in the Divine Life that he already enjoys with the Father, a life that is held together by love!
It is to divine love and unending life that the good shepherd wants to lead us. We can be sure of having that life if we listen, follow, and lead others with the same selfless love that our Good Shepherd has shown us!
May God Bless you and keep you safe!
Fr. Brendan Murphy, O.P. | Chaplain at Aquinas House