Fourth Sunday of Easter (April 22, 2018)
Images are helpful in clarifying an idea. They can also be unhelpful when carried beyond the point intended. For instance, referring to the institutional church as “holy mother the church.” Motherhood connotes loving, caring, nurturing; these qualities should be applicable to the relationship of the church and ourselves. Unfortunately, some church officials carry the image too far and deplore those who are critical of the church saying “it’ is wrong to criticize your mother.” Our institutional church needs criticism, and Vatican II says so.
I surely had difficulty for a long time about today’s Gospel image. Jesus is the good shepherd - fine; bishops are also formally referred to as shepherds. Having lived a novitiate year on a farm, I felt uncomfortable with that. I was well aware of sheep: dumb animals, mindlessly following someone with a crozier in hand. I went one bridge too far - beyond what Jesus was teaching about the relationship between himself and us.
In today’s example of one of the seven “I am” sayings in John, which are Jesus’ way of self-revelation, Jesus here reveals himself to be the good shepherd. In Matthew and Luke, we read of Jesus’ care in finding the lost sheep, only in john is there mention of the shepherd being willing to lay down his life for his sheep.
Five times john repeats that the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. It was the good shepherd’s, the owner-shepherd’s job to care for and defend the sheep. If a sheep was missing, he would search and bring it back. In ancient times, if the shepherd lost the battle for a sheep and a wolf was killing it, the shepherd would be expected to bring back an ear, or something that he pulled from the wolf’s mouth -- to prove that he had done his job.
The good shepherd warded off would-be attackers by day. At night, on the hills, there were enclosures without gates. Sheep were very vulnerable. At night, the shepherd would put his staff across the doorway and the sheep had to duck, so he could inspect them. When they were corralled, he would lie across the entrance and become the gate. No wolf or thief could touch the sheep without going through him. Jesus elsewhere calls himself the sheep gate. Wonderful images of loving protection!
Jesus describes his flock as sheep that he knows. Knowing in the Hebrew mind implies not only intellectual knowledge, but also love. The “knowing shepherd” alludes to the tender image of is 40:11 - “Like a shepherd he feeds his flock / in his arms he gathers the lambs, carrying them in his bosom, and leading the ewes with care.”
There is a profound mutuality of love here, which Jesus compares to the intimate bond between himself and the Father. There is unconditional love that Jesus communicates to us, exemplifies for us, lives and dies or us.
Jesus said: “Learn of me.” We can learn of him in today’s Gospel by becoming like him toward those in our care as parents, as relatives, as baby sitters, as older brothers and sisters, as motorists - in becoming good shepherds. We shall very unlikely be called to literally give up our lives by the shedding of our blood.
If we appreciate the loved poured out to us, we need to respond in kind.
Stephen Levine describes it so well: “You cannot unconditionally love someone. You can only be unconditional love . . . It is a sense of oneness with all that is. The experience of love arises when we surrender our separateness into the universal. It is not an emotion, it is a state of being . . . It is not so much that ‘two are one so much as it is ‘the one manifested as two.” [Who dies? An investigation of conscious living and conscious dying, 75]
Jesus called his followers “my” sheep, not “our” sheep. We are cooperators only. We are called to help in shepherding:
- to lay down our popularity lives by taking the risk of unpopular stances. For instance: TV viewing, computer use, a stance on abortion - to protect the unprotected.
- to lay down our lives for others by giving what seem to be such important pieces of our lives - our time, our talent, our treasure that the “little ones” may be safe