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We think of the Good Shepherd as a smiling Jesus with a lamb over his shoulders, a harmless, compassionate figure who nobody would object to, because he is only here to help.
We couldn’t be more wrong.
When Jesus claimed to be the Good Shepherd 2,000 years ago, the religious leaders picked up stones to kill him. When we hear his words this Good Shepherd Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Easter Year C, it should change how we see our personal identity and purpose. It should change our life.
When Jesus said he was the Good Shepherd, it was a history-altering earthquake of an announcement.
Our brief Gospel reading from the Tenth Chapter of St. John today includes no context so we might miss exactly what is going on.
The order of events goes like this: In the Gospel of John, Chapter 9, Jesus heals the man born blind, and the Pharisees, furious that this was done on the Sabbath, badger the man, saying, “We know that God spoke to Moses, but we do not know where this one is from.”
The newly sighted man answers, “This is what is so amazing, that you do not know where he is from, yet he opened my eyes.”
There is a lot going on here. Jesus is giving sight to the blind, like the Messiah is supposed to do, and the Pharisees want to know “where he is from,” suggesting they suspect an answer different from simply “Galilee.”
Jesus answers them at length in Chapter 10 and we hear bits of his words in each Church year’s Good Shepherd Sunday. In Year A, two years ago, we heard the first 10 verses, where Jesus says that his sheep know his voice and that other would-be shepherds are strangers and robbers. In Year B, last year, we heard the next eight verses, when he says that as the Good Shepherd, “I lay down my life in order to take it up again.”
But what we hear now, in Year C, comes months after all of that. John reports that what we hear this Sunday is from Jesus’s visit to the Temple for the Feast of Dedication, in the winter. And what do we find? The Pharisees have been brooding over his Good Shepherd words the whole time.
Jesus picks up exactly where he left off weeks ago, and they know exactly what he means. Jesus is referencing of the prophecy of Jeremiah echoed in Ezekiel. “Look! I am coming against these shepherds. I will take my sheep out of their hand and put a stop to their shepherding my flock,” God says. “I myself will pasture my sheep.”
When Jesus says he is the “Good Shepherd” he is not saying, “I am a friendly farmhand.” He is saying, “I am the Great One here to oust you from your places, you thieves.” So they gather around him and say, “How long are you going to keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
It is at this climactic moment that Jesus delivers the brief speech that is our Gospel this Sunday.
He tells them:
“My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish. No one can take them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can take them out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.”
Those words make them so furious they pick up stones and are ready to kill Jesus then and there for blasphemy.
They see in a flash what Jesus has done. He has set them up to prove who he is. In the incident with the man born blind, their own words helped establish that Jesus has a voice more powerful than Moses, and that he restores sight to the blind. Now he says that he is the divine shepherd who holds the world in his hand.
They are ready to kill him rather than capitulate on something this significant. Of course, later he will allow them to kill him for it. He will lay down his life for his sheep to prove that “The Father and I are one.” And then he will take his life up again, just as he said he would.
This is why Good Shepherd Sunday is in Easter, though the reading is not an account of the Resurrection.
By rising from the dead, our Good Shepherd has gathered us into his flock forever. In this Sunday’s Psalm we thank God for this, saying “The LORD is God; he made us. We are his people, the flock he tends.”
The two readings for Sunday show just how significant this Shepherd is for us.
In the First Reading, we see the fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham. After sin destroyed and dispersed the people of earth, God singled out one lone wanderer, and promised Abraham, “all the nations of the earth will be blessed in him.” There followed the Salvation history that culminates in Sunday’s First Reading, from Acts, when St. Paul opens the new Kingdom to the whole world. He tells the Jewish people that since they rejected Jesus, God is inaugurating a new reality. For, “I have made you a light to the Gentiles,” Paul says, quoting Isaiah, “that you may be an instrument of salvation to the ends of the earth.”
Then Paul and Barnabas do something hugely significant. It used to be that Jewish people, returning home to their own nation, would shake the dust off their feet before they re-entered their homeland, refusing to bring any part of the Gentile land with them. Now, in a cataclysmic reversal, they leave the Jewish people and shake the dust off their feet before entering Gentile lands.
In the Second Reading, we see two more covenants fulfilled:
“I, John, had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands.”
This is an astonishing image of heaven, in which all of the covenant images of the Old Testament converge — all the nations promised to Abraham are there, surrounding the Passover Lamb given to Moses, at the throne of the forever-kingdom promised to David. And all of it is delivered to us by Jesus Christ, killed and risen from the dead.
What does that mean for us today? For those of us baptized into Christ’s new kingdom, it means quite a bit.
“Good Shepherd” turns out to be shorthand for “prophet, priest, and king.”
Examine the words of Jesus in this Sunday’s Gospel: “My sheep hear my voice,” he says, because he is the ultimate prophet. “I give them eternal life,” he says, making himself the eternal high priest. And, “No one can take them out of my hand,” he says, as our great protector-king.
When he incorporates us into his body through Baptism and the Eucharist, we are anointed to become what he is — prophets, priests and kings.
So our job is to be both good shepherds and good sheep — like border collies, who by being obedient to their master corral his sheep according to his commands.
Are we good sheep? Jesus gives the test: Do we hear his voice? “And what is the voice of the shepherd?” asks St. Augustine “‘That repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name throughout all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.’ There is the voice of the shepherd. Recognize it and follow if you are a sheep.”
And are we good shepherds — prophets, priests and kings? There’s a test for that, too. Are we other Christs? Do we speak his words even when it makes our audience — and us — uncomfortable? Do we sacrifice for eternal life, or do we get what we can from this life instead? And do we sacrifice our own bodies to protect others, or do we sacrifice others for our desires?
Those who pass the test have an eternity of glory to look forward to. We are fed by the Good Shepherd here; there we will rest in his green pastures.