In recent years, the Fourth Sunday of Easter is known as Good Shepherd Sunday. That is because in all three years of the Sunday lectionary (A, B and C) we hear a portion of tenth chapter of the Fourth Gospel which contains pastoral images of Jesus as shepherd and sheep gate. Today’s second reading from the book of Revelation also references Jesus as “the Lamb who is in the center of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to springs of life-giving water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
The use of Psalm 23 as the response to the first reading reinforces the image of the Good Shepherd. “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.” The shepherd is so faithful in caring for the flock. He seeks out green pastures. He guards against predators. A good shepherd is vigilant and close to his sheep.
Jesus takes on the role of the Good Shepherd. In the Fourth Gospel this image is used as a metaphor that illustrates the closeness of Jesus to his disciples. In the ancient Middle East, being a shepherd was a full time task. The shepherd spent all his time with his sheep. He never left them. There was an intimacy between sheep and shepherd. So Jesus says: “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”
In the same chapter Jesus says that he “knows each one by name.” They recognize his voice as he calls them. He is the kind of shepherd who seeks out the lost sheep. He will leave the 99 who are doing fine in order to find the one who is lost.
Jesus as the Good Shepherd offers much more than an ordinary human shepherd can. He makes another promise: “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.” In other words, Jesus invites us into the same intimate relationship that he has with the Father. Being close to Jesus in this life, brings us to an intimacy that is eternal.
This is all quite consoling. It is so beautiful to ponder this intimate relationship that Jesus wants to have with us. Reflecting on this image of the Good Shepherd can comfort us when we are lonely, strengthen us when we feel down, and sustain us when we do not have the strength to go on. It is no wonder that this image has such a prominent place in Christian art, literature and music. Pope Francis wears this image as the pectoral cross around his neck.
But there is a challenge also implied in the image of the Good Shepherd. Those who are called to any type of leadership in the Christian community are also to imitate the ways of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. For us who are priests, seminarians, religious and lay leaders in the Church, we need to be as close to the people we serve as Jesus was. In the words of Pope Francis, we must “have the smell of the sheep.” Because of our intimate relationship with Jesus, the Good Shepherd, we can in turn lead God’ flock with a shepherd’s care. Being close to Jesus and close to God’s people, we are able to lead them to green pastures and eventually eternal life.
The image of the Good Shepherd can also inspire those who are servant leaders in any walk of life. What would it mean for parents to see themselves as good shepherds of their children? How would shepherding rightly apply to those who supervise or manage others in the workplace? What would change in the lives of civic and government leaders if they took the Good Shepherd as a model for their public service? How can teachers, nurses, doctors, lawyers and social workers be inspired by Jesus the Good Shepherd? Any one of us can ask ourselves in what ways are we called to shepherd others?
As we hear the Good Shepherd calling our names, let us draw closer to him and find in Jesus the intimacy we long for. But let us also hear him challenging us to go to the peripheries to seek out the lost and neglected. May we be good shepherds and shepherdesses to whomever the Good Shepherd sends us.