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Today, the fourth Sunday of Easter is commonly called ‘Good Shepherd Sunday’ because the Psalm, the Second Reading and Gospel for today all speak to us of Christ our Shepherd.
As most of us know, I’m sure, the metaphor of the shepherd was something well understood in the days of Jesus (and even well before that), because, in the regions of Israel and the Middle East, the shepherd was (and still is) a very common and important job. So when Jesus spoke of the shepherd and the sheep-gate, everyone had a pretty good sense of what He was talking about. It would’ve been the equivalent of a sport or business metaphor for us today.
Now, most of us today are pretty unfamiliar with shepherding, though we kind of have an idea of what it’s like, especially if we have any knowledge of farming. But that’s only the literal/practical understanding of shepherding. Since Jesus is using ‘shepherd’ as a metaphor, it means there’s also a symbolic meaning attached to it, and that’s what I’d like to open up today.
First of all, the image of the shepherd in relation to religious leaders and to God was quite an ancient one for the Jewish people: remember, Abraham, Jacob and Moses were all shepherds… So for us to understand more fully what Jesus is saying to us in today’s Gospel, we really need to look back into the Old Testament for answers. And perhaps the best place to do that is to look at Ezekiel 34, where Ezekiel prophesies that, since the religious leaders aren’t being faithful, God Himself will become the shepherd of Israel. We will see in the verse immediately following today’s Gospel that Jesus fulfils that very prophesy, when He says, I am the good shepherd (Jn 10:11).
So what does Ezekiel tell us about God as a shepherd? Well, he says, I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the crippled, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and strong I will watch over. I will feed them with justice (Ez 34:15-16). The Good Shepherd seeks, brings back, binds up, strengthens, watches over and feeds.
And we see throughout the Gospels that Jesus perfectly corresponds to this image: He, the Son of God, came down to earth and became a man to seek out His beloved creatures, His lost brothers and sisters, so that He might bring us back to the Father. And He does this seeking and bringing back by healing the blind and the lame, by raising the dead to life, by sharing the love and mercy of the Father, by preaching the Good News of the Kingdom, and finally by laying down His life on the Cross to free His sheep from their sins and raising them to new life with Him at the Resurrection.
And only Christ has done this: no one else is God made flesh; no one else died for our sins; no one else has been raised from the dead to experience the glory of the Father… Only Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd; all others, as He says, are thieves (cf. Jn 10:8).
But Jesus also chose to associate His Apostles to this ministry of shepherding when He told Peter to feed and tend His sheep (Jn 21:15, 16). That’s why the Church calls her Bishops and Parish Priests ‘Pastors’, for they are to shepherd in the manner of Christ, the Good Shepherd. And that’s why she also asks us, on this Good Shepherd Sunday, to pray for vocations, especially for an abundance of good and holy Priests who will shepherd God’s people with the heart of the Good Shepherd, who will lay down their own lives so that God’s sheep may have life and have it abundantly (Jn 10:10).
Let us, then, pray for an abundance of such Priests; pray for those who are discerning this vocation, that they may have to courage to answer; pray for those who are already Priests, that they may remain faithful to their ministry; pray for those who are now in retirement, giving thanks to God for the lives they laid down for our sakes.
Lord of the harvest, send us many good and holy labourers into your vineyard! Amen.