Father Donald Senior, CP

May 12: Fourth Sunday of Easter

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

The good shepherd

Acts 13:14, 43-52; Ps 100:1-2, 3, 5; Rv 7:9, 14-17; Jn 10:27-30

Several motifs converge on this Fourth Sunday of Easter. Taking its cue from Jesus’ description of himself as a good shepherd in Chapter 10 of John’s Gospel, this day has been traditionally named Good Shepherd Sunday. For that reason, during the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI also designated this Fourth Sunday as a worldwide day of prayer for vocations. Running through all of this is the powerful current of our post-Easter readings that recount the dynamic and expanding mission of the early church in the wake of Pentecost.

The image of the shepherd has deep biblical roots. Sheep were a mainstay of life in ancient Israel. Their wool was essential for clothing and shelter and their milk and meat were vital sources of protein. 

Sheep were valuable to any family. The shepherd’s responsibility was to protect the flock from predators and to make sure the sheep could find the grass they needed for sustenance, which was a sometimes challenging task in a parched landscape. Even today, visitors to the Holy Land can see shepherds and their flocks.

It’s no wonder the shepherd became a metaphor for the role of the leader in the clan and nation. In the Old Testament, the prophet Ezekiel accuses both the religious and civil leaders of Israel of being treacherous shepherds who “feed themselves” rather than the sheep. They neglect the flock and allow the sheep to scatter and become prey for wild beasts (see the prophet’s bitter accusations in Ezekiel 34). 

By sharp contrast, God is a true and attentive shepherd who guides and protects the flock and brings them into verdant pastures. This, too, is the underlying imagery of Psalm 23, one of the Bible’s most beloved passages: “The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I lack. … In green pastures he makes me lie down, to still waters he leads me; he restores my soul. … Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”

This, of course, is the rich background for today’s Gospel reading. Jesus draws on his Jewish and biblical heritage to underscore his love for his disciples: “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”

The Gospel of John characteristically stresses the deep bond of love between Jesus and his followers (then and now): “I give them eternal life and they shall never perish. No one can take them out of my hand.”

In his final discourse on the eve of his passion, Jesus reminded his disciples of his profound love for them: “As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love. … This is my commandment: Love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends.”

In dedicating this Sunday as a day of prayer for vocations, the church emphasizes the evident meaning in the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. Traditionally, the term “vocation” used here referred primarily to priests and religious. However, one of the important results of the Second Vatican Council over which St. Pope Paul VI presided was to understand that all of the faithful are called to follow Jesus and share in his mission. 

In today’s church, so wounded by “shepherds” who have abused rather than protected and nourished the sheep, we realize how critical it is to have pastoral leaders of integrity and strong faith. The readings today emphasize that religious leaders must love the people they serve and do everything possible to protect and nourish them. 

Pope Francis has repeatedly used the shepherd image when speaking of authentic pastors. They are not to be aloof but be so close to their people that they “smell of the sheep.” True pastors, the pope reminded us recently, should walk with their flock — sometimes in front to guide them; sometimes in the middle to encourage them; and sometimes at the back to care for the strays.

Let us earnestly ask the Risen Christ to give the church pastors such as these.


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