Every year, the Gospel reading for the fourth Sunday of Easter usually comes from the chapter 10 of John’s Gospel. Here Jesus deploys analogies and metaphors which all related to sheep and shepherds. In this chapter we have two important “I AM” sayings of Jesus Christ, both metaphors. “I AM THE GATE” and “I AM THE GOOD SHEPHERD”. For this liturgical year, year B, focus is on the Good Shepherd (John 10:11-18). Instances abounds in the Old Testament where God is metaphorically portrayed as the Shepherd. This could be found in Genesis 49:24 and more in the Psalms, (Ps.23,74,78:52- 53,80,95). Also we find in Ezekiel 34, the condemnation of the Kings of Israel who were bad shepherds. Who failed to feed the flock, but instead endangered and exploited them. God is the good Shepherd who rescues the sheep. God promises to feed, heal and gather the scattered flock and set up a true shepherd like King David who will rule in justice and fairness.
The Lord made this promise, “I shall raise up one shepherd, my servant David, and put him in charge of them to pasture them; he will pasture them and be their shepherd” (Ezekiel 34:23). In the new dispensation, Jesus, from the stock of David is the perfect fulfillment of this divine promise. The qualities or character of the good Shepherd as highlighted in today’s Gospel includes; i.) Laying down his life for the sheep. ii.) The good Shepherd knows his own and they know him. Interestingly the second quality says something of the sheep too, and it is the ability of the sheep to know the Shepherd by recognizing his voice and following his lead. The Journalist and travel Writer, H. V. Morton, wrote a fascinating work in 1934 entitled “In the Steps of the Master”.
Therein he gives an account of his visit to the Holy Land before the establishment of the modern state of Israel. Morton had observed some Palestinian shepherds pasturing their flock. When night came, two shepherds ushered their sheep into a cave, (which served as their sheepfold) and the sheep all intermingled. In the morning, one of the Shepherds, standing some distance away from the intermingled flock, began to call out his sheep and they started following him firstly one, then two, and more untill he had counted his whole flock”. In the words of today’s Gospel “…the sheep hear his voice, one by one he calls his own sheep and leads them out. …he goes ahead of them and the sheep follow because they know his voice”. (John 10: 3b – 4, 14 -15). The art of recognizing the voice of the Shepherd is something that could best be achieved by familiarization overtime.
Being one with the Shepherd affords the sheep the opportunity to study and know his own distinct voice. So then, here we have to ask ourselves the very important question; Do I make effort to study the word of God, to know his voice? Do I listen to the voice of Jesus, the good shepherd by making a regular conscious effort to live out the commands of God? Do I listen to Him by keeping my baptismal promises of rejecting Satan and sin? Do I listen to Him by staying faithful to my religious or Priestly vows as the case may be? Do I listen to the voice of the Shepherd by being obedient to constituted authorities? The list is endless, but the question remains the same. We need to be in constant and committed relationship and communication with the Shepherd so to be familiar with His voice, to decipher it from the various voices around, that seeks to allure us and lead us astray.
Turning to the first quality of the good Shepherd, that is, that of Laying down his life for the sheep, William McClure Thompson offers an account of the fate of a shepherd, in his work “The Land and the Book”. William says “…and when the thief and the robber come (and come they do) the faithful shepherd has often to put his life in his hands to defend his flock. I have known more than one case where he had literally to lay it down in the contest. A poor faithful fellow last spring, between Tiberias and Tabor, instead of fleeing, actually fought three Bedouin robbers untill he was hacked to pieces with their machetes, and died among the sheep he was defending.” This show of love for the sheep and dedication was also true of shepherds in biblical times, they risked their lives to protect their sheep. Jesus, the good Shepherd laid down his life, so that we his sheep could have life in abundance. His death was a perfect expression of God’s self-giving love for us.
This indeed is Good news for us. It is the reason for the joy of Easter; that Jesus laid down His life for us despite our sinfulness and unworthiness, so that we can come to share in life eternal. Placing the great guestures of the good or sacrificial shepherd side by side with the shepherds or leaders of our time, both political and religious, we see that many of them are not so different from the old testament shepherds of Israel whom God condemned for their failure to feed the flock in Ezekiel 34. We have increasingly encountered and keep enduring as leaders many thieves, rogues, brigands who are only out to steal, cheat, loot, embezzle, oppress and destroy.
Shepherds who feed themselves fat with food mearnt for the sheep, while the sheep are left starve to death. Shepherds who instead of laying down their lives for the sheep, shed innocent blood of the sheep, when they cry out because of frustration and hunger. Indeed these are never shepherds in the first place, but hirelings and mercenaries, who are self-seeking instead of self-giving. In Jesus Christ, we all have the only true, sacrificial and good shepherd, whose voice we must necessarily listen to and follow his lead in order for us to be led to the pasture of eternal life. Jesus does not segregate against any sheep, for he recognizes that there are other sheep who are not of the fold, but they too are to be pastured so that there will be one sheepfold and one shepherd.