Fourth Sunday of Easter – May 15, 2011 – St. John’s
Images of shepherding are found often in the Bible, and it is this tradition that lies behind the Gospel we have just heard in which Christ refers to himself as a shepherd. The Israelites were among the ancient peoples that used the metaphor to refer to their leaders, and nowhere more powerfully than in the indictment brought against the kings of Israel in the thirty-fourth chapter of the Book of Ezekiel. Listen to it:
“Oh, shepherds of Israel, … you do not feed the sheep. You eat the fat; you clothe yourselves with the wool; you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened; the sick you have not healed; the crippled you have not bound up; the strayed you have not brought back; the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness have you ruled them…. My sheep were scattered; they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them” (Ez 34: 2-6).
Given this failure, the prophet goes on, God himself must act:
“Thus says the Lord God: Behold I, I myself, will search for my sheep and seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when some of his sheep have been scattered abroad, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. And I will bring them out from the peoples, and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the fountains, and in all the inhabited places of the country. I will feed them with good pasture, and upon the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture…. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the crippled, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will watch over. I will feed them with righteousness” (Ez 34: 11-19)
When we Christians hear these words today, we hear in them an almost complete description of what Christ himself did. We hear his parable of the shepherd who goes off after the one lost sheep; we think of his describing the crowds coming to see him as “sheep without a shepherd”; we think of him predicting his own death when he says the shepherd will be struck and the sheep scattered. And we think of the tenth chapter of St. John’s Gospel where he calls himself “the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep.”
We have heard today the first part of that chapter. The practice of the day is presupposed. At night the sheep of several flocks were brought together in a common sheepfold near or within a house. In the morning each shepherd went into the sheepfold and called his own sheep by name and led them out to pasture, with the sheep following him because they recognized his voice–they would not follow after a stranger’s voice. It is an image that would have been immediately intelligible to the people of Jesus’s day, but without a great deal of effort we, too, can appreciate it.
Certain features of it perhaps especially appeal to us: that the shepherd knows and calls his sheep by name–not so odd: I know people who have named their chickens! That Christ knows us each and calls us each by name should be of great comfort to us. We are not lost in a great anonymous mass: we are all precious to him, worth knowing in our individuality, and loved by name. And that we should be able to recognize his voice among so many voices that may call out to us, even by name–that, too, is worth our reflection. This does not necessarily come naturally to us; it requires us to have spent time with our shepherd, to have become familiar with his voice and the kinds of paths on which he calls us, to have developed ears alert to his call when he warns us, when he urges us on, when he calls us back to himself. The goal being that we strive to know him as well as he knows us.
In his reflections on this passage of John’s Gospel, St. Augustine reflected on this call from God toward us. If you look at the Church today, he said, there are many sheep outside and many wolves inside the Church. There are many now sexually wanton who one day will be chaste; many now blaspheming Christ who will come to believe in him; many now drunk who one day will be sober; many now stealing other people’s property who one day will be donating theirs. In turn, many now in the Church will one day blaspheme; many now chaste will become adulterers; many now sober will bury themselves in wine; many who now stand are going to fall.
His point was that many of those who don’t now recognize Christ’s voice one day may recognize it and follow him, while many who recognize it now may so fail to follow it that one day they cease to listen for it and eventually can’t distinguish it from other voices calling them onto other paths than his. None of us should despair about others, then, nor presume that our own salvation is assured.
What is clear for both groups of people is that the shepherd continues to call and that the pastures to which this Good Shepherd would lead us are full of fresh life. For he distinguishes himself from all others with the words with which today’s Gospel ends: “I have come that they may have life, and have it more abundantly.”