Fr Rodney Kissinger, S.J.
“I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” These words of our Lord refer to the Paschal Mystery which we celebrate at Easter. It is most appropriate then that this Fourth Sunday of Easter be celebrated as Good Shepherd Sunday.
The image of the Good Shepherd is one of the most primitive, the most enduring and the most endearing images of our Lord. It is found first of all in the Old Testament. “For thus says the Lord God: I myself will look after my sheep...As a shepherd tends his flock, so will I tend my sheep...the lost I will seek out, the strayed I will bring back, the injured I will bind up, the sick I will heal.” (Ezekiel 34:11) It is also one of the most beloved Psalms, “The Lord is my shepherd there is nothing I will want.” (Psalm 23)
In the New Testament, Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd, fulfilling God’s oath to his people. His mission is to the lost sheep of Israel. He will leave the ninety-nine in the flock in search of the one lost stray. He will lay down his life for his sheep. He will be the shepherd at the last judgment who will separate the sheep from the goats.
We saw last week how Jesus commissioned Peter to be his successor as Shepherd of the flock. (John 21:15) Today the symbol of the shepherd, the shepherd’s crook, the crosier, is used by Pope and Bishops, successors of Peter and the Apostles, at Liturgical functions. The symbol of the shepherd is also present on the Parish level in the Pastor, which in Latin means shepherd.
The people of Israel and the early Christian community cherished this image of the Good Shepherd. In Biblical times sheep were very important. They provided both food and clothing. The pastures available were such that they imposed on the shepherd the nomadic life. He had to travel with his sheep from one region to another as the seasons changed. This created a close rapport between the shepherd and his sheep. The Shepherd cares for his sheep, calls them by name, leads them to pasture and water, finds shelter for them in inclement weather, defends them against bandits and wolves, and willing lays down his life for them. The sheep have great confidence in the shepherd. They recognize his voice, obey his commands, and they follow wherever he leads them. The people of Israel and the early Christian community understood the rapport between the shepherd and his sheep. This image of the Good Shepherd does not move us as it did the people of Israel, and the early Christians. But if we really want to understand the Scriptures and to know our true relationship with God we must understand the image of the Shepherd and his sheep.
Unfortunately, shepherds and sheep are not very common or relevant in our high tech, computerized world. And we do not like to think of ourselves as dumb, submissive animals. We are sophisticated human beings. We have an intellect and a free will, we go where we will and do what we want. And we don’t like sheep dogs yapping and snapping at our feet. But perhaps we are more like sheep than we care to admit. Just like sheep we seem to be oblivious of everything except the plot of grass that surrounds us here and now. We spend all of our time feathering this little nest here as if it will go on forever. Just like sheep we are not conscious of the ravenous wolves that surround us in the counter-culture in which we live. To say nothing of the wolves that come to us in sheep’s clothing. And just like sheep we always think that the grass is greener on the other side, so we stray from the flock. Whether we appreciate it or not, the image of the Good Shepherd and his sheep is enshrined forever in the Bible and in Christianity. And in reality and truth it fits every generation, even our own.
“My sheep hear my voice; I know them and they follow me.” (John 10: 27) We should have a quiet time each day. Turn off the radio, TV, internet, cell phone, put everything on the back burner and learn to recognize the voice of the Good Shepherd. What a great blessing it is to be able to recognize the voice of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, and to follow him with great joy and confidence wherever he may lead us.
Lord is my Shepherd there is nothing I shall want.”
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