Fourth Sunday Of Easter (May 7, 2017)
Today is often called “Good Shepherd Sunday,” referring, of course, to Jesus. But, did you notice that Jesus does not call himself the “good shepherd” – at least, not directly?
He calls himself the sheep gate - and for good reason. In those days, flocks of sheep were kept overnight in a common enclosure; the walls were stone - and high enough that the top was beyond the claws and the jaws of the wolves and other predators that prowled the countryside. Such is the case, even today. At nightfall each shepherd leads his sheep into the sheepfold. In the morning, the shepherd leads his flock out again. The sheep know the sound of the shepherd’s voice.
A visitor to the Holy Land asked why there were not gates to the sheepfolds. The guide replied, “That is an easy one; that is where the shepherds sleep.” The sheep gate and the shepherd are one and the same.
The shepherd is the only defense for the sheep. He remains at the most vulnerable point. He lies down between the sheep and any predators - to protect them and even possibly to give his life for them.
As we know, sheep are not particularly intelligent. Jesus’ point is the fidelity and the vigilance of the shepherd; it is always a mistake to try to carry a metaphor beyond the point being made; here, shepherding is the point. Jesus is not referring to us as dumb animals.
When we stop to think about it, the metaphor, shepherding, actually denotes a relationship, a relationship of faithfulness, of protection, of nourishment, and care. If we think of shepherds, only as an office in the church, we can become disillusioned in these our days. And who of us has not experienced that in recent times.
The chief priest in a parish is called “the pastor.” The chief pastor in a diocese is called “the bishop.” [He even carries the shepherd’s crook during liturgy]. The highest pastor worldwide is called “the Pope.”
Most of us in church this day are shepherds, leaders in one way or another: within our family, within our parish, within our community. The Gospel challenges us to look to ourselves to examine our relationship of shepherding towards those in our care. Are we faithful to our task? Are we courageous? Are we watchful of what nourishment of food and drink as well as TV viewing and computer using? Of places we allow those under our care to go? Or have we, perhaps, somewhat abdicated our responsibility and thereby abused and allowed harm to come to our lambs by our negligence?
Jesus is the supreme shepherd. He is the example to each of us in our roles as shepherds. He gave even his life for his sheep. Jesus as good and faithful shepherd inspires us to lead “ours” through the dark valleys of life.
All of us need to keep our eyes on Jesus, the good shepherd and see the institutional church as a means, not an end, to foster our relationship with Jesus. In turn, we strive to improve our Vatican II understanding of church, the people of God, so that united to Christ, we may become all that we are called to become.
As we just heard at the end of the Gospel, recognition of Jesus as supreme shepherd leads us to enjoy the promise of life in abundance. The good shepherd tells us that to give us life in abundance is why he came.