Father Leslie Hoppe, OFM

April 21: Fourth Sunday of Easter

April 17, 2024

Sheep and shepherds

Acts 4:8-12; Ps 118:1, 8-9, 21-23, 26, 28, 29; 1 Jn 3:1-2; Jn 10:11-18

Christians have always regarded the figure of the good shepherd as an attractive and endearing image of Jesus. The first Christians especially appreciated it. Many tombs found in Rome’s catacombs have an image of Jesus depicted as a shepherd emblazoned upon them.

The word “pastor” is Latin for “shepherd,” so priests and bishops regard themselves as shepherds of Christ’s flock and stylize their ministry as “pastoral.” In contrast to the positive image of the shepherds and shepherding, it is likely that when Jesus called himself a shepherd, his audience was taken aback.

Shepherds were not highly regarded by most people of Jesus’ day. Farmers especially disliked shepherds because too often sheep ended up in their fields grazing on crops before they could be harvested.

The religious leadership of the Jewish community considered shepherding a despised occupation since shepherds did not observe the Sabbath or the times for daily prayer in accord with Jewish custom. The rhythms of their days were determined by their sheep, not by the times for prayer.

Shepherds were rootless people. They were forced to be constantly on the move as they led their flocks to new pastures.

By speaking of himself as a “good shepherd,” Jesus led his audience to look at himself and at shepherds in a new light. Jesus called attention to the extent that good shepherds will go to protect their sheep from predators: “A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (Jn 10:11).

Jesus wanted people to know that he was not simply an engaging preacher and a compassionate healer. He declares that he is ready to act like shepherds who place themselves in harm’s way to protect their sheep. Jesus was ready to die so that all people might have eternal life.

But Jesus says more. He will lay down his life for his sheep, but he has the power to take it up again. That same power will make it possible for people who believe to have eternal life.

“I am the good shepherd” is a powerful and endearing image. But how far should we take it? Sometimes more attention has been paid to the sheep than the shepherd protecting them. The Christian faithful should not be thought of as sheep if that means that they are passive, uninformed, helpless people who need to be taken care of and told what to think, say and do by those in authority.

Pope Francis has called the faithful to claim their responsibility for leading “the other sheep who do not belong to (Christ’s) fold” into the sheepfold that is the church. That is the goal of the synod on synodality that is engaging Catholics, lay, religious and clerics to listen to each other so that together they may learn where the Spirit is leading the church today.

The synod is an outgrowth of the call made by the Second Vatican Council for all Christians to accept their responsibility for proclaiming the Gospel. Today, laypeople are taking their rightful place in the ministries of the church.

The call to ministry comes from our baptism and many people are answering that call. Some are part-time volunteers; others have made some ministry in the church their life’s work. They are far from being sheep. They are living out their baptismal commitment by serving the people of God as leaders in the parish, as catechists, as ministers of care, as youth group leaders, as readers and extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion.

The church needs more shepherds who are ready to give their time and talent to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the good shepherd, to be sure, but he does not call his people to be like sheep who are helpless.

The vocation of the Christian faithful is to embrace our baptismal calling and responsibility to complete Christ’s work on earth. Led by the Spirit of Jesus, we proclaim the Good News of God’s love for the world (Jn 3:16).



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