The Fourth Sunday of Easter has my favorite Gospel story of Jesus as the Good Shepherd–my favorite image of Jesus. It’s the perfect image for us today.
Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.”
Jesus says “I am” 45 times in the gospel of John. Some of the outstanding ones are: I am the bread of life. (Jn 6:35) I am the light of the world (Jn. 8:12) I am the resurrection and the life (Jn 11: 25 and I am the way, the truth and the life (Jn. 14:6).
Our scripture scholar William Barclay points out that there are two Greek words for ‘good’. One is agathos that simply means the moral quality of the person; the other is kalos that means that in goodness, there’s a winsomeness that makes it lovely. When Jesus is described as the Good Shepherd, the word is kalos. There is loveliness in him. And yet we know that being a shepherd was (and is) a demanding task, a demanding vocation.
In Jesus’ time some looked down on shepherds as outcasts; they were not usually welcome in the towns. Their work was demanding and perilous. They were sometimes responsible for herds numbering in the thousands. They contested with hyenas, jackals, wolves, bears, human enemies, the burning heat of the day, and bitter cold of night. If something happened to a sheep, the shepherd had to produce proof it was not his fault. The law laid it down: If torn by beasts, let him produce the evidence.” (Exodus 22:13)
It took me a long time to realize that shepherds walked down the road ahead of their flock. And the sheep simply followed. They just responded to his voice.
In Mark 10:32, we’re 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.
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. (And don’t we have some political leaders these days who take care of their of own interest, rather than their constituents?) The good shepherd is the one dedicated to his sheep and their care.(And the same with true servants of the people. Are you watchful whom you elect?)
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.
What a wonderful model for leadership of any kind. Someone who is not coercing. Not goading. Not threatening.
Jesus just wants to lead the way. He wants to BE the way because he walked the path ahead of us. He knows what human life and death is about.
And more than that, he says “I know mine and mine know me.”
He’s talking about knowing us personally for who we are inside, who we really are. He delights in those under his care. He rejoices in us. He wants to be very close to us.
And he wants us to know him personally and intimately, too.
That’s enough. For those of us who know, who realize, that God loves us, lifts us up, supports us, wants us to be who we are, that is just enough.
This is the Jesus I know and love. Jesus has invited me into a personal relationship with him and that makes all the difference in the way I live and love.
I, too, have always wanted to shepherd like that. To be an example to others. To lead and to know and care for those in my life and those for whom I write.
This gospel says there’s a difference between a Good Shepherd and a hired hand who abandons the flock when things get rough. The Good Shepherd will leave the flock and search for the lost sheep and bring them home.
Jesus says, “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. 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 is not only the shepherd, he is the sheep-gate. 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.
Those who dabble in mystical experience such as LSD and guided meditations of one sort or another are not protected in the spiritual word. Jesus is the only protected Door or Gate to the spiritual world.
Jesus says it was the Father who gave the sheep to him. And that Jesus received his confidence from the Father. Thus, you see, Jesus was secure, not in his own power, but in God’s.
The picture seems a bit one-sided. The Good Shepherd is doing all the giving, all the caring, all the protecting. The sheep just receive.
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, needs to be unconditional, our loyalty without compromise, our thoughts, words and deeds in accord with the will of God.
Now 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 model my leadership style on Jesus as the Good Shepherd?
I love this image of Jesus. He’s my model of what a priest should be like — he’s a model of what a parent or a teacher or a coach, or even a good statesman should be. I just hope that I can continue to be a good shepherd.
Pope Francis has challenged his priests to go out among their flocks and “be shepherds with the smell of your sheep.”
And now my prayer . . . .
many of us have the role of shepherding others,
whether we be priests or religious or parents, teachers, coaches,
public servants or even the Leader of a Nation.
May we rejoice in that sacred honor and privilege
and do it well, not for profit but for love.
May we never betray that trust.
May we always delight in also being cared for by You.
To You be honor and glory and praise!
CHRIST IS RISEN!
Now before you go, enjoy this version of Psalm 23. Be sure to enter full screen. Click here.