“It is the duty of a good shepherd to shear his sheep, not to skin them.” ~ Tiberius Caesar
Today our Church celebrates Good Shepherd Sunday, a day to reflect upon Jesus’ role as the shepherd of our souls. Prior to Vatican II, this day was celebrated on the 3rd Sunday of Easter but since then it is always observed on the 4th Sunday of Easter.
The Gospel Passage chosen for this Feast is always taken from the 10th Chapter of John, with John 10:29-33 serving as this year’s offering. Jesus challenges us to “hear his voice” amidst the incessant noise of our preoccupied culture so they we can follow him along the path that leads to true life and ultimately, life eternal. “God has, in fact, thought of us from eternity and has loved us as unique individuals,” Saint John Paul II explains. “He has called every one of us by name, as the Good Shepherd calls His sheep by name.”
As a master teacher, Jesus uses nothing but the most perfect imagery when discussing the relationship between him and his people. As such he spoke of Himself as the Good Shepherd throughout scripture, which at times bewildered those in his midst. In fact John 10:6 tells us that “Although Jesus used this figure of speech, they did not realize what he was trying to tell them.” It wasn’t until after his death and resurrection that Peter and the others came to understand these words, most notably when Jesus explicitly says of himself: “I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). Peter would in fact refer to Jesus as the shepherd in his first letter:
“He himself bore our sins in his body upon the cross, so that, free from sin, we might live for righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you had gone astray like sheep, but you have now returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls” (1 Peter 2:24-25).
In a Good Shepherd Sunday Homily delivered in 2005, Pope Benedict XVI explained that “One of the basic characteristics of a shepherd must be to love the people entrusted to him, giving the sheep what is truly good; the nourishment of God‘s truth, of God‘s word, the nourishment of his presence which he gives us in the Blessed Sacrament.” In today’s 1st Reading, (Acts 13:14, 43-52), Paul and Barnabas remind us that fortitude and boldness are characteristics of good shepherds, as they sought to carry out Jesus’ command: “I have made you a light to the Gentiles, that you may be an instrument of salvation to the ends of the earth.”
Saint Ignatius believed that there were but three voices we as humans beings have the option of listening to and subsequently following. There’s the voice of the secular world, in its combative and relentless 24/7news cycle, Twitter trash-talking glory. There is of course the voice of Satan, the Father of lies, the one who tells you that you are a lost cause, unforgivable, and eternally hopeless. That the 10 Commandments are proof that God wants to restrict your freedom and pursuit of “happiness” by way of the pursuit of constant and instant pleasure.
Both of these voices broker in fear, cynicism, anxiety, narcissism and hubris. Yes, I lump both voices together as it would appear that both are sounding more and more similar with each passing day. As noted Singaporean evangelist Joseph Prince explains, “When we are fearful and worried all the time, we are living as if we don't believe that we have a strong and able Shepherd who is tenderhearted toward us, who only leads us to good places, who protects us and lovingly watches over us.”
Which brings us to the third voice, the voice of the Good Shepherd. The voice that says come, follow me, allow me to take on your burden. Come to me, and I will love you unconditionally and forgive you 70 x 7 times. Come to me, and I will give you that which you truly hunger for. Come to me and I will give you life. Not fleeting pleasure, not an easy or comfortable existence, but life.
It is only with the Jesus the Good Shepherd that our spiritual needs are satisfied. By being in communion with the Good Shepherd, we experience healing and are granted unfailing protection from all predators. We are given the freedom to do what we ought to do; the freedom to do good. Jesus the Good Shepherd always cares for his sheep, guiding them along the right path, never coercing them with violence or the soft-peddling of the truth.
In the latter stages of John’s 10th Chapter, Jesus proclaims “My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life and they shall never perish. No one can take them out of my hand.” Those of us who have loved ones who have fallen away from the church should take much solace in these words. Yes, we must intercede constantly on their behalf and imitate our Lord by showing them love, gentleness and compassion, but we must also trust and believe these words from Jesus. . . “No one can take them out of my hand..”
Over time, by the grace of God, those who belong to Christ and who hear his voice will recognize when he calls. When they are ready, they will return once again to the Lord’s flock and find eternal happiness in peace with him.
“Almighty ever-living God, lead us to a share in the joys of heaven, so that the humble flock may reach where the brave shepherd has gone before.” ~ Amen