TODAY IS KNOWN AS GOOD SHEPHERD SUNDAY because, in each year of the liturgical cycle on this 4th Sunday, the Gospel is always taken from the 10th chapter of John where Jesus speaks of himself as the "good shepherd".
In today’s passage Jesus emphasises the self-sacrificing element in his own life: "The good shepherd is one who lays down his life for his sheep." He contrasts the good shepherd who owns the sheep to someone who is simply hired to look after them. The hired man thinks primarily of his own welfare and, if he sees a wolf coming, he takes off, leaving the sheep to be attacked and scattered in fear and terror. Jesus, on the other hand, will not be like a hired person: "I lay down my life for my sheep." Perhaps he contrasts himself with those mercenary religious leaders among his own people – and to be found in every religious grouping – who do just what is expected of them but have no real commitment or sense of responsibility to those in their charge.
He knows his sheep
Secondly, the good shepherd knows his sheep and they know him. There is a mutual bond of love and intimacy. That love is compared to the deep mutual relationship that exists between Jesus and his Father. "My own know me just as the Father knows me." Again the hired man or the self-interested leader will not have such a relationship with his charges. The Second Reading speaks in similar terms when the author says, "Think of the love that the Father has lavished on us, by letting us be called God’s children, and that is what we are."
One shepherd and one flock
Thirdly, the good shepherd deeply desires that many other sheep should come to identify themselves with him. "There are other sheep I have that are not of this fold, and these I have to lead as well." The ultimate goal is that "there will be only one flock, and one shepherd", that the whole world will be united together with its God and Lord. This is the meaning of the Kingdom which is at the heart of the Gospel message.
This is a goal which preoccupies us still today. There are still so many millions of people who have not yet heard the message of a loving God, a God who sent his only Son to die for them. They seek meaning and happiness in their lives by pursuing all kinds of other goals which inevitably turn to ashes: material abundance, status in the eyes of others, power over others, mistaking pleasure and hedonism for happiness…
In so doing, they reject Jesus the Good Shepherd. "Because the world refused to acknowledge him, therefore it does not acknowledge us." This is something we must learn to accept as a fact, even if it is hard to understand and even harder to take.
No matter how closely we follow in the footsteps of our Shepherd, in fact, the more closely we follow him, the more likely it is that we will be rejected and even attacked. More tragic still, however, there are so many people who claim Christ as Lord, many of them very good and sincere people, who are often divided, even bitterly divided among themselves.
Here, more than anywhere is there a need for all to follow one Shepherd and form one flock. Otherwise how can we give witness to the love of Christ if that love is lacking among the servants of Jesus?
Lastly, there are those who, though incorporated through baptism into the Body of Christ, consistently behave in a way which totally distorts people’s understanding of Christ and his call to discipleship, fulfilment and happiness. Probably, most of us have at one time or another failed in our call to give witness to the truth and love that is to be found in Christ.
Giving life willingly
Jesus emphasises that, in giving his life for his sheep, he is doing so of his own will. It is not just by force of circumstances. His death is to be the living proof that "the greatest love a person can show is to give one’s life for one’s friends". This is the proof that Jesus truly is a Good Shepherd.
On the face of it and looked at with purely secular eyes, the life and mission of Jesus seemed an utter failure. Even Jesus’ friends and admirers must have shaken their heads in sorrow as they saw him die on the cross. Jesus himself said "It is finished." But, for him, the words had a completely different meaning.
As Peter tells the assembled Jews in the Temple in today’s First Reading, "This is the stone rejected by you the builders, but which has proved to be the keystone. For of all the names in the world given to men, this is the only one by which we can be saved."
As Jesus himself says in the Gospel today, "I lay down my life of my own free will, and as it is in my power to lay it down, so it is in my power to take it up again." And so it was. The Second Reading contains part of an address Peter gave in the Temple after he and John had cured a crippled beggar at the Temple’s Beautiful Gate. The healing of the man in the name of the crucified Jesus through the agency of Peter and John is the proof that Jesus is risen and working among us.
Lastly, all of this is intimately linked with the second theme of this Sunday. Not only is it Good Shepherd Sunday, it is also "Vocations Sunday". On this day we are especially asked first of all to pray that the Church may be provided with the leaders needed to do its work of spreading the Gospel.
We know that at the present time there is a critical shortage of such leaders, at least in the traditional sense – priests and religious. But, while we may earnestly pray that our Church be supplied with the leaders it needs, there can be a tendency among us to pray that OTHERS may answer that call. We do not see ourselves as included. We may pray earnestly for more young people to offer themselves as priests and religious but clearly exclude our own children.
But the problem is a wider one. We have for too long given a much too narrow meaning to the word ‘vocation’. We tend to limit it to a calling to be a priest or a member of a religious institute. But, in fact, every single one of us has a vocation. For most of us, probably, it is what we are now doing be it as spouses, parents, teachers, doctors, civil servants, running a business, salespersons… or whatever.
Nevertheless, each one of us should be asking ourselves today:
Is what I am spending my energies on every day my real vocation?
Is this what God wants me to be doing with my life?
How is what I am doing giving witness to my Christian faith?
What contribution am I offering to making this world a better place for people to live in?
To what extent am I a spreader of truth, of love, of justice, of freedom, of tolerance and acceptance…?
And, if I am in a position which would be difficult to change (as a spouse or parent or holding a particular job), how, within that situation, is God calling me to greater service of my Church and my community? Am I giving something through my life or am I just using society (and even the Church) to get what I want?
God is calling every single one of us to work for the Gospel. For a small number it may be as a priest or religious – and that call can come at any time in one’s life. But there are hundreds of other ways of serving the Church and helping to build up the Christian community. Where is God calling me to make my own unique contribution based on the particular talents God has given me?
If every single one us were to answer that question sincerely and to act upon it, I am confident that our Church would have all the leadership it needs.
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