Scripture Readings: Acts of the Apostles 4:8-12; First Letter of Saint John 3:1-2; Gospel of Saint John 10:11-18
Our Lord Jesus Christ, during his earthly ministry, knew very well how to speak to the people about his person and his mission, using simple and direct words. The images or examples Jesus used in his teachings were taken from the daily lives of the people whom he addressed. Even so, the people did not always immediately grasp the meaning of these images or examples, so Jesus took pains to explain more clearly how the people should apply his teachings to their lives.
In the Gospel text for this Sunday, the image Jesus uses for himself is that of a good shepherd who lovingly tends his flock. Jesus also calls himself the gate by which the sheep come and go from the sheepfold.
All of this would have been familiar imagery for the nomadic and pastoral people who listened to Jesus. While few or maybe none who read this are shepherds of sheep, we should easily enough understand the idea being put forth of the importance of a good shepherd and a peaceful sheepfold. To adhere to Jesus without fear or doubt is the basic challenge the Lord presented to his first hearers and to us in this day and age as well.
Jesus contrasts himself as the good shepherd with the thieves who deceive and do not lead the sheep along good paths. Jesus says clearly that what he comes to bring is life, and life to the full. What the thieves bring may look like life, but in fact brings spiritual death. That would include the unbridled pursuit of pleasure, accumulation and hoarding of goods, living for oneself and not for God and others in genuine and humble service; in short, living a life of vice and not of virtue.
Jesus speaks of himself as the leader of God’s flock, the Good Shepherd, walking in front of the sheep, as the way, the truth and the life for all those who are truly seeking to be in God’s sheepfold.
Today, perhaps more than ever, in the face of so much loss of morality and direction in life, where apathy and mistrust abound in the social, political and even religious realms, we need to hear again the strong message of Jesus. The Lord is indeed our Good Shepherd, guiding us in right paths, giving us courage and strength even in our darkest moments, spreading a banquet for us and inviting us to dwell in God’s house forever. If that be the case, then truly we shall not want for anything!
This is the theme of the famous and well-loved psalm 23(22) that begins, “The Lord is my shepherd. There is nothing I shall want.” Another psalm of the Old Testament expresses the same sentiment with the beautiful phrase: “And now, Lord, what is there to wait for; in you rests all my hope” (Psalm 39(38), verse 8).
The gentle message of the Lord today is applicable to all, the rich and the poor, the well and the infirm, the young and the old, leaders and followers, saints and sinners. No one is to be excluded from Jesus’ sheepfold and all are lovingly invited to it.
The shepherd knows his sheep, Jesus says, and he knows each of us. Nothing is hidden from God’s sight, so we can never pretend to be other that what we are: a flock that has been loved into being. As individuals, endowed with free will, we are capable of straying from the fold and seeking our own will rather than God’s. However, the good shepherd never leaves the flock untended, and is always seeking the return of the stray, finding the lost and the discouraged among the sheep.
Expressed another way, God continually gives grace so that we, the sheep of God’s flock, may truly adhere to the one thing necessary, that is, participation in God’s life, which Jesus came to give us to the full by dying a bitter death yet rising from the dead. “By his wounds you were healed,” says Saint Peter in his First Letter, chapter 2, verse 24. Could there be a richer consolation for our weary hearts?
Saint Peter proclaimed this message as well on Pentecost and won many adherents to Christ, recounted in the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 2. There Saint Peter says, “Let the whole house of Israel know beyond any doubt that God has made both Lord and Messiah this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:14).
Our Good Shepherd knows our needs, shares our experiences, and is in communion with his flock. Because of this, we have confidence that we are never left without the help of a loving and saving God.
As a flock gathers around its shepherd, we are called to assemble in worship with our Good Shepherd, Jesus, who feeds us with the finest wheat, and pours himself out for us.
At the Eucharist we truly “taste and see the goodness of the Lord,” as the psalmist expressed it so well in Psalm 34(33):8, when we partake of the Body and Blood of the Lord in Holy Communion. Jesus assures us, “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:51).
This is our peace and joy in this Paschaltide!
Abbot Christian Leisy, OSB