By: Fr. James Gross
The Church gives this day the unofficial title of “Good Shepherd Sunday.” Every year on the fourth Sunday of Easter we hear a part of Jesus’ discourse declaring that he is the shepherd of the sheep. In the modern world plenty of listeners will be tempted to tune out this whole idea, to consider the analogy antiquated and beneath their dignity. Sheep are simple animals, after all, and we’re nothing like them! Sometimes I feel like responding to this by saying, “For once, it’s not all about you.” The imagery of the shepherd is far more demanding of our attention than that of the sheep. We don’t call it “Lowly Sheep Sunday,” but “Good Shepherd Sunday.” The weight of this metaphor is on God’s action. And in the middle of this Easter season, we are to meditate on the characteristics of our Messiah and on his own words.
What Jesus does today is to describe a familiar part of daily life for his listeners and apply it to himself. Everyone knew that shepherds would work together by combining their flocks at night so as to protect them from thieves, robbers, or wild beasts. For us, the question arises: how did the shepherds sort the animals out? Each morning, one at a time, a shepherd would speak and call out to his sheep, all the while walking slowly toward the entrance of the pen. Those sheep who belonged to that shepherd, who recognized his voice, would follow, and each flock would go its own way to graze in the nearby pastures.
Jesus accentuates his role when he calls himself the gate for the sheep. Back in this time in history, if there was no actual gate in the common pen, one shepherd would lie across the opening or threshold to the pen as he slept, literally making himself the gate. Anyone who wanted to come into contact with the sheep would have to go through the shepherd. How often do we ask Jesus to be our spiritual gate? Do we assign him to the task of guarding our hearts and banishing temptations? What becomes of us when the gate is unlatched and the doorway lies open?
“I am the gate for the sheep…whoever enters through me will be saved.” The shepherd provides security because only in him do the sheep put their trust. In addition, the shepherd is vigilant, never permitting any kind of predator to get past him or scale the fence. He defends each sheep as though it were priceless. It is said that in the event of losing a sheep, the shepherd was expected to put up a fight and show physical evidence of bruises or injury in order to keep his job. All the more so did Our Lord endure the most awful mistreatment and violence at the hands of his persecutors.
“I have come that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” We are physically alive in terms of nature, but we are spiritually alive through Christ, the Good Shepherd. He alone opens up for us our true human destiny and embodies its virtues. Some people will argue that religion narrows our experience of life by its many rules and prohibitions. But there’s a whole other side of the coin—namely, the peace and fulfillment that Christ alone can give. Why is it that certain people with the fanciest toys and possessions can be sad, still searching for what makes life worth living? They cannot deliver abundant life, but Christ the Good Shepherd can. His road is narrow and steep, but the destination—heaven—is sure.
Americans celebrate as a characteristic of their identity a strong sense of rugged individualism. We praise those in our midst who pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. We don’t think of the song lyric “I did it my way” as a harbinger of disaster. Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for personal responsibility, but taken to the extreme, such expressions of individualism wage war against the concept of Christ as our Shepherd. When I insist on being my own shepherd, what does Jesus really do for me anymore? Is he reduced to a heroic figure from the annals of history, or the buddy from whom I seek advice when I’m in big trouble? Is there any such thing as allegiance or accountability?
The very existence of the Catholic Church challenges this conventional American mindset of absolute independence with regard to religious practice. The Lord Jesus set up His Church to be a shepherding presence, and has empowered leaders from its midst to exercise the function of shepherd in Christ’s name. This places an enormously high standard on Pope Francis and the college of Bishops, but let’s consider the alternative for a moment. The most vocal opponents to the Catholic Church’s hierarchy would not, in the long run, really eliminate hierarchy. They instead desire to set up a system in which everyone is hierarchy. And then, who can rightfully refute anyone else? A “shepherd-less Body of Christ” is far different in reality than it is in theory. Those who seek to liberate the Church from abuses through an extreme individualism actually introduce a whole new kind of chaos. If Christ is no longer our Shepherd in any meaningful or concrete sense, then anything goes.
We need to take to heart the example of the audience in today’s first reading. What Peter had to say to them lands like a sledgehammer: “God has anointed as Messiah this Jesus, whom you crucified…save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” How did Peter’s audience respond? We hear that they consented, then and there, to being baptized, but what’s just as amazing is what we DON’T hear. There’s no defensive attitude or making excuses. “You must be delusional. Things are just fine, aren’t they?”
The short answer is that, without Christ in our lives, no, things are not fine. Those newly baptized first converts knew there had been something—someone—missing in their lives. Eventually they came to see evidence of the shepherding love of Christ in the Apostles. The day of Pentecost was just that—one day. As time went on, they asked one another “Are these men for real? Did they mean what they said? Are they truly putting what they preach into effect?” Peter’s words were powerful, but how he and the others lived out their message did a lot to win people over. They demonstrate how to dwell with Jesus, our Good Shepherd, and to make a home for him in our hearts.
Lastly, we do well to remember that the Church urges all of us on this Good Shepherd Sunday to pray for vocations to the Priesthood, and to actively encourage the young men of our parish who exhibit signs of a possible call to the Priesthood of Jesus. If we do not do this, who will? If we do not do this, what kinds of opportunities for grace and union with Christ might slip through their fingers? We have reason to rejoice in the Church because of how well our Savior nourishes us. Through imperfect but faithful human ministers, the Lord Jesus continues to shepherd us. May the Church of Christ always have dedicated shepherds who make tangible for us the love of His Sacred Heart.