Scripture Readings: Acts of the Apostles 2:14a, 36-41; First Letter of Saint Peter 2:20b-25; Gospel According to Saint John 10:1-10
This Sunday is usually called “Good Shepherd Sunday,” because of the focus of the Mass readings, especially the Gospel, where Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd. Other places in the Gospels we hear Jesus using the same imagery, taken from ordinary and familiar realities of the time. The Lord made His points concise and clear to His hearers by calling to mind common things like sheep and shepherds.
Jesus’ words in the Gospel passage today are specifically addressed to the religious leaders, called the Pharisees, who knew Jesus, listened to Him and interacted with Him on a regular basis. The intent of Jesus in today’s Gospel is to give the Pharisees a better sense of who He is and why He is in their midst. Ultimately, though, the Pharisees did not accept Jesus’ testimony.
In the Gospel this Sunday the image of a sheepfold is used by Jesus in comparison with the religious atmosphere of first century Palestine. Jesus, as the Teacher of a New Way, explains that the guardian of the flock of sheep is very important for keeping away predators. Our monastery of Christ in the Desert now has nineteen sheep, both ewes and rams, younger and older, and it is important to us that the fairly defenseless sheep have round-the-clock protection. For us, that has meant the acquisition of a donkey.
Why did we settle on a donkey as the guardian of our sheep? Donkeys are considered ideal companions to sheep and are often used because of their gentleness and docility, yet they possess too an element of ferocity when the sheep they are guarding are confronted by predators, such as coyotes, mountain lions, bobcats, etc. Though rarely seen, we do have these types of marauders in our canyon. That being said, the notion of a guardian of sheep is very germane to our farm here. Extending this notion to the Gospel this Sunday, there can be no better guard or gatekeeper to the Lord’s fragile and vulnerable flock, we humans, than Jesus Himself!
The words of Jesus in the Gospel this Sunday describe the usual enclosed area where flocks of sheep are carefully guarded, especially at night. It is an apt figure of the need of the human race for protection in the daily struggles of life, especially in the face of sin and darkness. As flocks of sheep are under the watchful care of a gatekeeper or watchman throughout the night, and thereby still alive when shepherds return to collect them as morning dawns, so the Lord’s flock needs God’s saving help and the guidance of good example and holy leaders in the journey through life. Yes, that includes good priests and bishops, but also parents, teachers and any who exercise a role of leadership. We all benefit from such assistance!
Jesus exhorts the Pharisees, who are religious leaders and guides, to stop and reflect. It is their duty to be watchmen, to recognize their important role in the life of the people. By extension, the same message is intended for God’s people of these present times. We are all “leaders” of others to one extent or another, and we either edify or scandalize those with whom we interact.
The second part of the Gospel this Sunday focuses on the reaction of the sheep to the voice of the legitimate shepherd of the flock and to an unknown or foreign voice. Sheep instinctively follow the voice they recognize and avoid or flee from a voice unknown to them. The question coming from Jesus would be this: are we well-disposed to listen and heed the Good Shepherd who calls us, or do we prefer the lure of the “unknown voice” which leads astray those who follow it?
Over the door of the church of our Benedictine headquarters in Rome, Sant’Anselmo, are carved these words in Latin: “Ego Sum Ostium Ovium,” that is, “I am the gate (or door) for the sheep” (Gospel of Saint John, chapter 10, verse 7). These are Jesus’ own words and a perfect reminder to all who enter the church. The phrase is Jesus’ revelation of Who He is for all people: the Entrance to God’s House. We all called to safely and confidently enter the path of true and abundant life by passing through the door, Who is the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ.
There is so much in our times and culture, including materialism, indifference and hostility to the things that are of God, that can greatly hinder us from going in the right direction, toward God. Since the prevailing culture we live in is no longer explicitly Christian at its roots, we are given a clear choice in the matter of adhering to the ways of the Lord, embodied in the Church and her Sacraments, or refusing them. Few if any today are forced to be followers of Christ, as many might have been in ages past, and even into the 20th century.
Because of God’s gift of free will, we are lovingly invited to hear and heed God’s voice, every day and every hour, to “return to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls,” as the First Letter of Saint Peter expresses the notion in the second reading at Mass this Sunday.
The passage from Acts of the Apostles for this Sunday describes the Lord’s call very succinctly and powerfully this way: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
Therein is found our peace.
Blessed Sunday and week ahead.
Abbot Christian Leisy, OSB