Fourth Sunday of Easter

Apr 21, 2024

One of the more popular images of Jesus is that of the good shepherd.  If you have a collection of holy cards with images of Jesus, one of those cards probably has Jesus carrying a sheep in his arms or around his neck.  It’s an image that is a little lost on us today, especially in this part of the country.  We do have sheep, but mostly they are kept in fenced in areas.  That’s the way my in-law’s sheep farm operated.  In Ireland however, the sheep roam everywhere, including in the middle of the road.  Over there, it’s never a good idea to take a blind curve quickly in a rural area. 

While near the Sea of Galilee, our pilgrimage group witnessed a flock of sheep eating and roaming around the side of a mountain next to a stream and a well worn path that many believe was used during Jesus’ time to travel from interior Galilee to the sea.  Everyone at once blurted out, “Jesus is the good shepherd.”   I don’t think we ever saw the shepherd, but our guide said he or she was probably not far away.

In ancient Israel, the shepherd was a familiar figure.  Although often regarded as one of the lowest of professions, two of Israel’s most important figures were shepherds.  When Moses first heard God’s call, he was tending sheep on the slopes of Mt. Sinai.  When Samuel went to Bethlehem looking for Israel’s next king, he ended up anointing David; who at the time was in the fields with his father’s sheep.  The first to visit the newly born Jesus in Bethlehem were shepherds.

Thus, the people that Jesus was addressing would have been very familiar when he spoke the metaphor, “I am the good shepherd.”  What I think will help us to understand better is to think of this in terms of a relationship.  To the shepherd, there was nothing more important than the sheep.  Jesus hints at this when he says I know my sheep and they know me.  The shepherd spent a lot of time with the sheep.  He was responsible for their safety and care.  The sheep came to depend on the shepherd for pretty much everything.  That is why the sheep knew the shepherd’s voice.

In addition, the true shepherd did none of this strictly for short term profit.  It wasn’t a job.  His reward was when it was time for the shearing of the wool or for the selling of the sheep.  The shepherd had an investment in the flock.  The hired worker, who has no investment in the long term well-being of the sheep has less motivation when danger approaches.  What danger would those tending a flock face?  Wild animals, such as wolves and large cats were constant dangers.  The greatest of dangers were thieves and robbers.  Why would an employee risk his life when he could simply find another job?  The shepherd had no such option.  Once the flock is gone, scattered, or stolen, the livelihood, the time invested, and the personal stake is also gone.  He would stand his ground and fight to the end to save what was his.  There was, in the end, a personal relationship.

What does all this mean then when it comes to Jesus and us?  Jesus wants that same type of personal relationship with us.  He wants to have a personal stake in our lives.  He wants us to look to him, just as the sheep looked to the shepherd, for safety and care.  Of course, we are a little more sophisticated than sheep.  We can think, create, and to some extent, form our own reality.  Why, then would we need a guide like a shepherd?  After all, who knows what’s better for us, than us?  Our modern society, especially in this country, worships the idea of the self-made man or woman.

That is, and has always been, not real.  None of us has gotten to where we are without the help of others.  We have all had, many shepherds in our lives- parents and relatives, teachers, friends, spouses, co-workers.  We’ve also had the hirelings- false friends, those who desert us in our hour of need. Sometimes, it can be difficult to tell the difference.  That’s why, as hard as it may be to grasp, we need that reliable shepherd.  We need that someone who will always be there and will have our best interest always at heart.

That is what Jesus is proclaiming to the crowds in today’s gospel.  He is the good shepherd.  The Greek word used for good is kalos.  That word means not only a morally good person but someone who is sympathetic, kind, and gracious- an extra special person.  Jesus is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for us- to lay down his life.  We just commemorated that sacrifice a few weeks ago.  The words he speaks are not empty. 

He also promised that we will know his voice.  How do you get to know someone’s voice?  By listening to them; spending time with them.  Investing time with Jesus will not go unrewarded.  We see that in our second reading from John.  He proclaims that we are now children of God.  That’s an incredible honor, but is only a first step.  Eventually, John proclaims we will be like God for we will see him as he is. 

Jesus will always have our best interests at heart because he knows each one of us.  Just like a good and dedicated shepherd, he has no ulterior motives.  His total dedication to us, through his great love, can sometimes be hard to grasp and understand.  There are very few examples of this in our world.  Even those closest to us are not perfect.  Leaders and institutions often seem aloof or to care more about themselves.  This is not unique to our time though.  Jesus’ monologue identifying himself as the good shepherd is in response to the Pharisee’s reaction to Jesus curing the man born blind on the sabbath.  The leaders of his time often cared more about protecting their own social positions and less about addressing the needs of the Jewish flock.

Through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus continues to be the good shepherd as he works through all of us- the Church today.  For Jesus to lead us though, it takes a certain amount of humility and obedience from us.  It can often seem counter-intuitive and is counter-cultural.  We think we know the best way, but that is often not the case.

The author Larry Libby encountered this through an experience of a relative.  His father-in-law was a big hunter in California and would often hunt on private property after first asking for permission.  He did this one evening.  The rancher thought for a moment before giving him permission.  In an unusual move though, the rancher asked to accompany the hunter.  As they drove across what seemed like a featureless pasture, the rancher asked the hunter to pull over and walk with him.  In short time, they came across a large black fissure in the earth that stretched across the entire pasture.  The fissure, which was featureless because it wasn’t any higher than the surrounding land, was thirty feet across.  When his father-in-law peered over the edge, there was no discernable bottom.

Jesus is always there as the good shepherd to help us avoid the fissures of life.  As Christians, it’s up to us to recognize and then listen to the still small voice of the good shepherd.                         

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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