“Moses said to YHWH,
“But, never in my life have I been a man of eloquence,either before or
since you have spoken to your servant.” Ex 4:10
Easter 4B: The Shepherd Image that Comforts and Challenges - Us the Church.
The early Christians tried to make sense of the "why" of Jesus' life, his terrible death, and his glorious resurrection, by using many images (see 1st image below from 2nd century catacombs) to describe the one whose love was so great that he laid down his life for them. The image of the "good shepherd" became a favourite. The sentimentality of this image (image 4), is dispelled by a close reading of the context of this gospel passage (John 10:11-18). The setting is not a rural hillside, but the temple during the Feast of the Dedication of the Temple (Hanukkah). The religious leaders question Jesus' authority to do miracles and teach. Jesus describes shepherds who act like hired hands and thieves and robbers who quickly abandon their sheep (after all it's just a job) possibly alluding to the religious authorities. What strikes me, is the close relationship between the shepherd who knows the sheep and is known by the sheep. The flock respond to the sound of his voice and not to the voices of strangers. The "good shepherd" will die for the sheep (image 2), which helps us, like the early Christians, to understand who Jesus is, and how he loves and knows us.
In this gospel analogy, we are the sheep. Some object to the image saying; 'we modern people are not like dumb animals'. Apart from some impressive technical advances, we humans don't seem to be all that bright. We think we can solve problems by war, hoarding and consuming more goods and food than is healthy. We seem fixated on social climbing, status, prestige and developing a culture of competition that creates a society of winners and losers. We are always slipping into our wolf shadow side, hiding in the dark of rationalisation. However, our shadow side is part of who we are. We are our shadow wolves at our own throats. But, the focus of the gospel text is not on us the sheep but on the shepherd. This is an examples where the New Testament says of Jesus what the Old Testament would say only of God. Jesus proclaims; "I AM the good shepherd." His care was so deep that he was prepared to lay down his life, his whole self for us his sheep. God accepts our dark wolfish side because he loves the whole of us. God even uses our shadow or sinful self to liberate us from our suffering that we bring on ourselves. There is no holiness without suffering and God through the risen Christ takes our weakness and turns it into a holy strength. Indeed we can affirm: “My God /Jesus is shepherding me; I shall not want.” (Psalm 23:1) He wisely meets all our needs not our desires.
So the gospel proclaims that Jesus the "good shepherd" has a deep, total, personal commitment to us. Henri Nouwen says; "we are not loved by God because we are precious, but we are precious because we are loved by God?" As we become more in touch with ourselves, we come to experience his gift of Easter peace of mind and heart. Jean Vanier in his book, Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John, when reflecting on this passage says: “To become a good shepherd is to come out of the shell of selfishness in order to be attentive to those for whom we are responsible so as to reveal to them their fundamental beauty and value and help them to grow and become fully alive.” Archbishop Oscar Romero, (Champion Shepherd of the poor and prophet for peace and justice in El Salvador) was fatally shot on March 24, 1980, while celebrating the Eucharist. He had just read from John's Gospel (12:23-26): "Unless the grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains only a grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit". He commented; “A church that doesn't provoke any crises, a gospel that doesn't unsettle, a word of God that doesn't get under anyone's skin, a word of God that doesn't touch the real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed - what gospel is that?” We are called to lay down our lives for each other, to know each other, to grow into unity with each other. In the Middle Ages, the Franciscans and other spiritual movements warned that the church was obscuring the gospel with its pomp and power, so becoming more the church of Constantine than of the apostles. St. Bernard wrote to Pope Eugenius III saying: "All this, as well as the claims to prestige and riches, goes back to Constantine, not to Peter." My prayer this day is that all of us, who are nourished by the Good Shepherd at the Eucharist, may hear again God's call to be "good shepherds" like Christ (image 3) willing to give our lives for those given into our care.