Chances are each time we hear about the Good Shepherd, our minds conjure up a picture of Jesus in long flowing robes, carrying a staff and walking ahead of some sheep.
I have always been fascinated about the way sheep are herded. They follow their shepherd, who walks in front of them. They are not goaded like cattle. Cowboys herd cattle from behind, pushing them forward. Not so with sheep.
If we are to look at Jesus as the Good Shepherd, that’s a nice image – Jesus walking ahead of us along the way. He shows us the way. He’s been there ahead of us. In Mark 10:32, we are told that the disciples were going up to Jerusalem “and Jesus was leading the way.” And of course, along the way, he was teaching and forming them.
Apparently, it is the voice of the shepherd that controls the sheep. “My sheep hear my voice,”says Jesus in today’s gospel. The sheep distinguish the voice of their one only shepherd from that of others. They only follow the one whose voice they recognize.
In another place Jesus distinguishes between true and false shepherds. The false ones are mere hired hands that don’t go out of their way to help the sheep. The good shepherd is the one dedicated to his sheep and their care.
The concept of the Messiah as the Good Shepherd appeared frequently in the Old Testament, notably in the prophet Ezekiel. All of Chapter 34 is dedicated to the Good Shepherd. Ezekiel warns of the peril of following false shepherds who lead their flocks astray. Seek the Good Shepherd who says, “The Lost I will seek out, the strayed I will bring back, the injured I will bind up, the sick I will heal. . . . Thus shall they know that I the Lord, am their God, and they are my people.”
These words were as familiar to the Jews in the time of Jesus as they are to us. They, too, recognized the difference between a good shepherd and a hireling, who was more interested in his pay than the welfare of the flock
While we love the image of the Good Shepherd, most of us lack firsthand acquaintance with either a shepherd or with sheep.
So let’s look at a comparison, one that is much more familiar to us. While we’re not likely to be greeted by a flock of sheep when we open the door, many of us have been greeted by – a Dog!
Anyone who has ever shared a home with a dog as I do will see the parallel immediately. For in this case, you are the good shepherd, the one who cares totally for another.
Just as we are completely dependent on God for everything, so, too, your dog is totally dependent on you. A relationship is established that is truly unique. The bond is impossible to describe, but also impossible to deny.
Magnify that many times over and listen again to the opening words of today’s gospel: “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” What greater blessing could there be than this: The shepherd knows my voice and I know his.There is instantaneous, constant communicationas we seek to become one with this Good Shepherd. The closer, the more intimate that relationship, the better we will comprehend the words of our Shepherd: “No one can take them out of my hand.”
Jesus says he is not only the shepherd, but he is the sheepgate. The sheep go in and out of the pasture and are safe.
Jesus is the Gate to the spiritual world. Because he claims us as his own, we are safe.
Our Scripture scholar-friend William Barclay has this to add about this passage. . . .
~ Jesus promised eternal life. If someone became a member of his flock, all the littleness of life would be gone and they would know the splendor and magnificence of the life with God.
~ He promised a life that would know no end. Death would not be the end but the beginning; they would know the glory of the indestructible life.
~ He promised a life that was secure. Nothing could snatch them from his hand. Not that it would save them from sorrow or suffering. Even in a world crashing to disaster they would know the serenity of God.
Jesus says it was the Father who gave the sheep to him. And thus Jesus received his confidence from the Father. He was secure, not in his own power, but in God’s. And the Gospel passage ends with the words, “The Father and I are one,” which calls to mind his intense prayer at the end of the Last Supper, according to John, “Holy Father, keep them in your name which you have given me that they may be one as we are one.” (John 17:11)
But let’s look at another side of this. The Good Shepherd seems to be doing all the giving, all the caring, all the protecting. The sheep just receive.
Look again, though, at the relationship between you and your faithful canine companion. If you have not experienced this personally, you have heard many true stories of the mutuality of affection. Your dog gives you, unconditional love, loyalty that cannot be broken, unequaled devotion. You are the center of your dog’s universe; everything revolves around you; you can do no wrong. Your dog’s will is perfectly conformed to yours. (except when he wants to go in a different direction than you want to.) That happens with my dog Shoney when there’s a female nearby!
Now isn’t that the relationship we strive for with our God? We have received everything from God; should we not give all in return? Our love, too, should be unconditional, our loyalty without compromise, our thoughts, words and deeds in accord with the will of God
And then ask yourself this question: Am I, in turn, a Good Shepherd?
If you have children or others under your care, ask yourself: Do I shepherd well those who are under my care? Do I shepherd by leading? Or by goading? How can I conform my leadership style to Jesus as the Good Shepherd.
Then, and only then, will we be able to say, “I know my Shepherd, and my Shepherd knows me.”
Christ is Risen!
Now, before you go, here’s a version of our beloved Psalm 23, “Shepherd Me, O God,” that has the flavor of Jesuit spirituality as well. Click here.