This Fourth Sunday of Easter is often called “Good Shepherd Sunday” because the gospel presents us with the image of Jesus as shepherd—one who knows his sheep and whose sheep know him and who spares nothing in order to protect and care for us. It’s a pleasant enough image, one that many people take great comfort in. However, some people find it an insulting –even demeaning –image; primarily because sheep are really very stupid animals and we bristle at the idea that we are in any way like them.
Think about it. Have you ever gone to a circus and seen an act involved sheep that have been trained to do tricks or amuse a crowd? Sheep have a very strong flocking instinct and seldom act independently. If they get separated from the flock, they don’t know how to survive and will likely end up as another animal’s dinner. They have no survival instinct, nor do they have any natural protection like claws or antlers or a touch hide they can use to protect themselves. They do have wool, but that only makes it easier for an enemy to grab them and pull them down. Their voices are not threatening and will not scare away any predators; quite the contrary, their bleat is kind of whiny and probably makes them more annoying than anything. And on top of all this, they can be willful, stupid and stubborn. And this is what we are compared to in the Scriptures?
But it’s not just the sheep that come across as less than sterling; shepherds are not the most polished or sought-after group of people, either! At the time of Jesus, they were looked upon as the lowest of the low. Although they were hard workers, they were thought of as bandits and thieves and they were believed to be so dishonest that their testimony was not accepted in courts of law. Being a shepherd is certainly not something you would want one of your children to aspire to!
And yet, this is what the Gospel uses as an image to speak of our relationship with Jesus and his with us. Who says God doesn’t have a sense of humor? Given what we have observed about sheep, maybe we are not as different from them as we would imagine ourselves to be. Lord knows, we can be easily swayed by the opinion of the crowd and not very firm in our own convictions. We can get caught up in the rat race of our work lives and move from one thing to another without a whole lot of thought or reflection. We can subscribe to the economic philosophy of success at any cost and believe that the more things we have, the happier we will be. And we can be herded into believing that we create our own success, but we usually discover that no matter how much we have we always seem to want more and that whatever success we achieve is never enough, either for ourselves or others. Perhaps that’s why Jesus has chosen this imagery. Like sheep, we need to depend on the shepherd for our safety, for our sustenance, for our wellbeing. In using this image, Jesus is telling us that if we allow ourselves to depend more on him and less on ourselves, he will give us a life. If we silence so many of the conflicting voices we allow to distract us and listen to his voice he will lead us to a place of life and refreshment where we will know the abundance and peace God desires for us...all the beautiful things we hear in Psalm 23. By listening to his voice, by being grateful for the care he gives us, we can free ourselves from so many of the burdens we allow to weigh us down and we can begin to recognize the wonderful graces that are already a part of our lives.
Sure, there will still be disappointments, failures, sickness and death, but by giving all of those things over to God, by finding the ways that God has been good to us…by listening to God’s voice we also find the happiness and peace that God desires for us and that we cannot achieve on our own. “I came that you may have life,” Jesus says, “…and have it in abundance.” That’s the voice of our Shepherd and we would do well to follow it and come to know that life.
– Fr. Anthony M. Criscitelli, T.O.R.