A reflection on the readings for April 25, 2021 — the Fourth Sunday of Easter
A few miles away from my former parish is a Catholic Worker Farm staffed by two theology professors, a former parishioner, and a Border Collie. I will spare you the typical Good Shepherd Sunday story about the each of the farm’s sheep and how they do or don’t conform to images of sheep offered to us in scripture, of more interest is their would-be shepherd, the one member of community who has all of the requisite gifts to be an incredible herder of ewes, Leo the Border Collie. It turns out that despite being bred for that specific purpose and having been raised on a farm, Leo is far more interested in playing catch than he is in acting the shepherd.
I don’t mean to pile on to poor Leo, he really is a good boy, but rather to express some degree of solidarity with him. I myself am a flawed shepherd, and just as the proprietors of the Worker Farm are surely glad that they do not have to depend solely upon the dog to care for the sheep, I am grateful that the salvation of God’s humble flock does not rest exclusively upon my shoulders. I am not unique in this regard, as it turns out the story of the Good Shepherd in John’s Gospel is not referring to any priest, bishop, layperson, religious, or even Roman Pontiff. While we call the overseers of our parishes pastors (Latin for shepherd) and give our bishops shepherds’ crosiers, the story of the Good Shepherd is a story about Jesus Christ, and we would do well to remember that from time to time, priests and laity alike.
The good in Good Shepherd provides us with part of the key here. While the adjective καλοϛ (kalos) appears many times throughout scripture, including in the first chapter of the book of Genesis in which God describes his creation as good, it is used only six times within the Gospel of John. Once to describe the wine at the wedding at Cana, twice in reference to the works of Jesus later in this chapter, and three times in reference to the Good Shepherd. All of them relate to the work of Jesus or to Jesus himself. This is significant when you realize that the image of the Good Shepherd in John shares few structural similarities to the parables of the synoptic gospels. One does not get the sense that we are invited to imagine ourselves in different roles within the story, as we can with the parable of the Prodigal Son or the Landowner and Tenants—there is no ambiguity around the figure of the Good Shepherd, he is Jesus and Jesus is him.
That the Messiah describes himself as a Good Shepherd would have been unsurprising to the average Jewish listener. They had King David after all, whose humble beginnings as a shepherd were well-documented. They were familiar with Scripture passages like Psalm 23 that described God’s tender care in terms of a shepherd watching his flock. They would also have known the explicit prophecy of Ezekiel 34: “I will appoint one shepherd over them to pasture them, my servant David; he shall pasture them and be their shepherd” (Ez 34:23). It is rather the way Jesus promises to shepherd his flock that likely confused many.
Consider the location and timing of this address. Jesus is at the Temple as people prepare to celebrate the Feast of the Dedication, commonly known today as Hannukah. We often think of Hannukah as a sort of Jewish Christmas, but it’s really more like a Jewish 4th of July. Hannukah celebrates the military victory of Jewish Maccabee rebels against the foreign oppressive Seleucids who had desecrated the Temple. One could be excused for expecting that when the Messiah speaks in the Temple on the feast day that celebrates a military victory that restored the Temple the content of his speech would perhaps be a bit more martial in nature. Aside from a few mentions of defending the flock from attacking wolves, there is little to suggest that the Good Shepherd will be the one to destroy Israel’s enemies, drive out foreign invaders, or establish a new political order.
The Good Shepherd will lay down his life for his sheep, yes, but in service of more than military or political glory. The verb used to describe how his sheep will know him and he will know them is γινωσκειν (ginoskein), indicating more than just passing familiarity, but a relationship. The Good Shepherd is good because his sheep know him intimately, because they are drawn into the very relationship he shares with the Father. The self-gift of the Good Shepherd is more than mere defense against enemies or payment of a debt, it reveals the true identity of Jesus and invites his sheep into the divine life itself. Jesus uses the language of the Good Shepherd on Hannukah not because he seeks to draw parallels with the military prowess of the Maccabees, but with the illumination offered by the oil lamps which did not extinguish. This story not only takes place immediately before the celebration of Hannukah, but immediately after the healing of the man born blind, further highlighting the illuminating role of the Good Shepherd. Just as the Temple was miraculously illuminated for eight days, revealing to human eyes the place of God’s presence, so Jesus is a shining light, this time revealing the presence of God himself and inviting all of his children into relationship.
As a priest and a vocation director, of course it is my desire to play my part in shepherding God’s humble flock and in training others to do the same, but we can never forget our role in the enterprise. There is one and only one Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ. It is the role of the priest, and every member of the faithful for that matter, not to draw others to themselves, but to Christ. To play our part in revealing Christ so that others may learn the sound of his voice, come to recognize him, and participate in that deep and transformative relationship with him. It is a great relief to remember that the weight of the world does not rest upon our shoulders, for his have already born it. Each of us is called to point the way to the Good Shepherd, so that he may lead his humble flock into the very life of God.
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