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May 3, 2020: The Fourth Sunday of Easter - Pastor’s Corner

Jesus said: “I am the good shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I will lay down my life for the sheep. 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.” (John 10:14-15,27-30)

(The Good Shepherd at Catacomb of Priscilla, Italy, Rome, ~200s.)

The Good Shepherd is one the most familiar and endearing images of Jesus in the Gospels.  Guiding the flock; searching for strays; guarding against threats: these three tasks correspond to the virtues of faith, hope, and love by which Christ shepherds His flock. Put simply, faith joins our mind to God as mystery, hope binds our heart to our God as our end, and love connects mind and heart together in union with God as the source of all life.  For this reason, St. Paul considers that our spiritual life can be summed up in these three virtues.  As we continue to celebrate Easter in the shadow of the cross of pandemic, we turn to Jesus as the Good Shepherd to help us to grow in faith, hope, and love.  Let us consider how the Good Shepherd leads us to each of these virtues.

Faith. Since the image of the Good Shepherd is particularly well-known, it can lose the power of its original context. Our initial reaction to the Good Shepherd is one of comfort and consolation.  But two thousand years ago, when Jesus first identified himself as the Good Shepherd, it polarized the crowd.  Many were shocked by Jesus’ words and exclaimed: “he is possessed by the devil.”  If this seems strange to us, we must remember that by claiming to be the Good Shepherd, Jesus placed himself in the pantheon of prophets and kings who spoke for God. Before he was called to lead Jacob’s decedents from Egyptian slavery, Moses was a shepherd for his father-in-law, Jethro.  Before he slayed Goliath, assumed the kingship, and ushered in the Golden Age of Israel, David tended the family flocks.  Jesus says that He, too, is a shepherd of the sheep given to him by his Father.  By comparing himself to Moses and David, and then declaring the rights to shepherd God’s flock, Jesus claims a Messianic mission.  When faced with criticism and rebuke, Jesus does not soften his statements, but in fact goes further by claiming to be God: “The Father and I are one.” The response from the crowd was pandemonium.  They pick up stones to kill Jesus, which they would have done if he did not escape quickly. Far from our idyllic image of the gentle Jesus, the initial preaching of the Good Shepherd incited a riot.

The Good Shepherd confronts us with a choice: do we believe that Jesus is God? This choice is not meant to inspire fear but to awaken faith.  If we desire to be in Jesus’ flock, then we need to listen to his voice: “My sheep hear my voice, I know them, and they follow me.”  We might ask ourselves if we are taking the time every day to listen to God voice in our lives. During our time of public distancing, we should draw ever nearer to the Shepherd who desires to guide us.  

Hope. Psalm 23 paints a poignant, poetic portrayal of hope. More than simple optimism, hope is that virtue whereby we are confident of God’s promises in the face of suffering and challenges.  Jesus knows well the Psalmists’ descriptions of the shepherd who wields the “rod and staff” as he navigates his flock through the “valley of death,” and he identifies Himself with it. The early followers of Christ recognized this, and so the very first images of Jesus are as the Good Shepherd.  The place where we find these images is not accidental: the catacombs. In a time of persecution, sacred places of burial were adorned with the Good Shepherd as a symbol of hope.  Even before it could celebrate the cross as a sign of exaltation, the first believers were encouraged by the image of the Good Shepherd.   They understood that it is Christ alone who can guide us through the valley of death because He has conquered death and returned to accompany us. The Good Shepherd is our hope. 

During this time of uncertainty, we ask the Good Shepherd to be our hope.  The illusion that we are in control and our happiness is found in success and achievement has been dashed by our current circumstances.  Hope is only found in following the lead of the Good Shepherd who knows how to help us avoid pitfalls and hazards.  In light of Easter, we have the hope that the Good Shepherd can lead us through death to verdant pastures, restful waters, and ultimately to the very House of the Lord forever.

Love. Just as our culture can mistake feelings for love, so, too we can sentimentalize Jesus as shepherd.  There is always a danger in drowning the drawings of the Good Shepherd in pastoral pastels. Popular depictions of the shepherd is Jesus adorned in crisp, lily-white garments belie the reality of herding sheep. Shepherding is a messy business. It is not just dirty, but dangerous.  When Jesus says, “I will lay down my life for my sheep,” it should strike us (as it did the original audience) as a bit strange.  Certainly, a sensible shepherd will protect his sheep from predators and seek out obvious strays, but no shepherd considers his sheep more valuable than his own life.  A sane shepherd values his sheep to the extent that they bring value to him.  By these standards, the Good Shepherd is neither sensible nor sane.  Our Lord is not willing that any of His flock be lost or harmed.  In fact, He considers the life of his flock to have priority to his own. Here we remember Jesus description of love: “No one has greater love than this to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (Jn.15:13) Jesus identifies with his sheep in a way which goes beyond the normal responsibilities of shepherding. The Good Shepherd defines his relationship with his flock in terms of love.

We are called to respond to love.  Just as the Good Shepherd gave His life for us, we are inspired to imitate this virtue in our own lives.  The heartbeat of love is to give of ourselves, not because of what we get, but because of the good that is created by the action. The Good Shepherd has shown us what love looks like; we are called to do likewise. As we celebrate Good Shepherd Sunday, let us open our hearts to choose in faith, to persevere in hope, and to love with generous abandon. May the Good Shepherd be our shepherd.  Let us faithfully follow our Shepherd with hope to restful waters in green pastures.

~Fr. Michael

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