“Jesus, the Good Shepherd” – Fr. Bob’s Homily for Sunday, May 7, 2022

“We are his people: the sheep of his pasture”. 

So runs the refrain to our responsorial psalm today. As I have often said, the nearest I have ever got to sheep is a couple of lamb chops on a plate. But every fourth Sunday of Easter, the gospel always refers to Jesus as the “good” or “true” shepherd and describes an aspect or aspects of his work as shepherd. It is important to remember that, for much of the time covered by the Bible, the people of God were primarily made up of rural communities. Sheep and cattle and crops were integral to their lives and the close, personal relationship between the shepherd and his sheep was understood and valued. The image of God as a shepherd was a common one, as we find throughout the Old Testament. Of course, every believer, and quite a few non-believers, cherishes the well-known psalm 23 that begins with the lines:” The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want”. But there are many other references, such as Psalm 80, which begins: “Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock”, and of course, we have our responsorial psalm today, Psalm 100, with its refrain: “we are God’s people, the sheep of his pasture”.

It was understood that shepherds really knew and loved each member of their flock and called them by name. Sheep really do know the voice of their shepherd and can readily distinguish his voice from that of another. The sheep know that it is the responsibility of their shepherd to provide food and drink for them each day. All they have to do is stay close to the shepherd and follow him wherever he leads. They trust him to provide for them and keep them safe. Even if a sheep were to persistently wander off and get lost, the shepherd would not hesitate to go after and retrieve the sheep again and again and again. And all these qualities of a good shepherd would be applied by Israel to their relationship with God, as we see time and again in the Scriptures. The leaders of Israel, such as kings, princes and priests, who had the task of looking after the physical and spiritual well-being of their people, as God’s representatives, were also referred to in the Bible as “shepherds”

But the writers of the Bible were not blind or stupid. They knew that evil could be found at all levels of society, including shepherding. Both the prophet Jeremiah, chapter 23, and the prophet Ezekiel, chapter 34, refer to leaders  who were not the paragons of virtue that they should be, and describe them as “bad” or “false” shepherds. In the chapters of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, that I mentioned, God thunders at these bad or false shepherds, for their mistreatment of his people, and promises that he is going to remove them from their position. Thus, in Jeremiah 23, verse 1, we read: ”Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture, says the Lord “. And in Ezekiel 34, we read :”Thus says the Lord God: ”Ah, you shepherds of Israel ,who have been feeding yourselves, instead of feeding the sheep…you have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed…but with force and harshness you have ruled them”(verses 2 -4)  Instead of these bad and false shepherds , God says that he will raise up new leaders, or “shepherds” , and place them under the rule of THE good shepherd, or THE true shepherd. This title eventually became one of the titles of the Messiah, whom Israel believed God was going to send to rescue them from all harm and evil and establish them in the “sheepfold” of God’s kingdom.

So when Jesus comes to Jerusalem, the headquarters and stronghold of Israel’s religious leadership, and proclaims, as he does in John chapter 10, that he is that true or good “shepherd”, the Pharisees, the scribes , the Sadducees, and chief priests and elders knew immediately what he was saying and did not like it one bit. They knew their Scriptures, they knew those verses I have quoted from Jeremiah and Ezekiel, and they knew that Jesus was calling them bad or fake shepherds, or leaders. In effect, Jesus was saying to them: ”You guys are history. I have come in my Heavenly Father’s name, to take back his sheep from you and give them over to shepherds who will truly take care of them and feed them physically and spiritually with good food. “. The religious leadership of Israel took great exception to being told they were being given the pink slip, and eventually, as we know, had him killed. But, of course, as our Easter season does not stop reminding us, Jesus rose from the dead, and now guides the people of God through his holy Spirit under the care of religious and spiritual leaders, who seek to emulate Jesus’ loving care and compassion for each member of his flock, including those who have strayed away from him and his sheepfold, the Church. The question each of us, who have the responsibility of caring for others, and that includes not just the clergy and religious , but parents, grandparents, teachers, health care people, and political leaders, the question we have to ask ourselves is :”What kind of shepherd am I being – a good and true shepherd, or a bad and false one ? 

But as well as being a shepherd of sorts, I and all of us, whether leaders or not, are also sheep, part of the flock or sheepfold encompassed by the kingdom of God. And as such, I get great hope and consolation from the words of Jesus in today’s gospel, that as I follow and try to keep close to Jesus , that he promises to give me eternal life, and not allow anyone or anything, especially the devil and all his terrible works, to snatch me out of his hand. And further, what about this promise of what heaven will be like for those who remain faithful to Jesus, the Lamb of God: “they will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; the Lamb will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” ?How wonderful, how delightful, those words are, and what assurance they bring us that death and suffering are not the end of all things, but give way to a future bright with eternal love, light and joy. That is why we call the gospel message about Jesus “good news” and why we must be sharers of the gospel to others, who have forgotten or have never known such news, nor understood why it is good.