Fourth Sunday of Easter Sunday
April 22, 2018
First Reading: Acts 4:8-12
Second Reading: 1 John 3:1-2
Gospel: John 10: 11-18
Since this is “Good Shepherd Sunday” it is perhaps helpful for those of us far removed from the world of shepherds and shepherding to think about what it took to be a good shepherd. Often depicted in sentimentalized pious art, Jesus as the Good Shepherd often appears with a shepherd’s crook, lovingly cradling a lamb. While this is a comforting image, it reduces the role of shepherd to a kind of passive divine babysitter. In real life, though, shepherds were (and still are) called on to do much more than cuddle lambs.
At their best, shepherds are much more dynamic; their “job description” could be summed up by three functions: protect, unify, lead. When Jesus says I am the good (model or noble) shepherd he is saying that his prime activity is keeping the sheep safe from marauding wolves — to protect them from danger. He is a real shepherd, not a hired hand that runs away when danger comes. The model shepherd is willing to lay down his life for those sheep he has agreed to watch over.
A good shepherd is also called on to unify the flock. He (or she) is willing to go out and search those who have strayed. There is strength and safety in keeping the flock together, so the “model” shepherd must seek out the lost.
Finally the Good shepherd is to lead. By calling to his sheep who recognize his voice, at times nudging or pulling them up them with his crook when they are confused and don’t know where to go. The sheep recognize the voice of the shepherd (someone who knows about sheep assures me that this is true). The sheep recognize the voice of their particular shepherd and respond to it. They are willing to follow because they have trust and confidence in the person of the shepherd who knows where both safety and good pasture is to be found.
These functions of protecting, unifying, and leading, then, are the ideal traits of a good Shepherd. It is not surprising then that image of shepherd appears in the Bible as metaphor for God (think of Psalm 23 (22) “The Lord is my Shepherd”) and particularly for Jesus. Shepherd also has become a way of understanding religious leadership. “Pastor” after all is just the Latin word for shepherd. I have been fortunate to have known bishops, priests and laymen and women – extraordinary people – who were exemplary shepherds. In visiting my Viatorian brothers in Colombia I remember being impressed by Bishop José Luis Serna of the Diocese of Libano/Honda. He was a voice that protected the cafeteros, the peasants who picked coffee beans, who were often caught between guerilla fighters and government forces. At times he put his life on the line, serving as an intermediary between the insurgents and the military. He also felt the need to serve all his flock-even those evangelicals who had angrily rejected the Catholic Church. He would go out to them and bring Bibles and other catechetical aids, not to convert them, but to serve them and help them hear the voice of the good shepherd through him.
We can all think of examples of good shepherds such as these. Paradoxically they are good shepherds because they realize that there is only one shepherd: Jesus Christ. These men and women have also not forgotten that in calling other people to faithfulness and leading them with care, that the key in being a good shepherd is not forgetting that they remain sheep – members of Christ’s flock – for in enlarging the flock of Christ by calling others to unity they realize that it is Christ’s voice that must be heard, not their own.
We thank God for those shepherds who have protected, unified and led us because they have listened to the voice of Jesus the Good Shepherd. We pray for them and for the courage to follow in their footsteps — even to the point of sacrificing our very selves.
Rev. Mark R. Francis, CSV