Acts 13:14, 43-52; Rev 7:9, 14-17; Jn 10:27-30
JESUS IS THE GOOD SHEPHERD
Today’s Gospel is very brief. But the message of this Gospel is not trivial. You recall that in last Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus commissioned Peter to “feed his sheep; feed his lambs”. Jesus uses the image of the humble service of a shepherd to describe his own mission on earth, since “The Son of man himself came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk 10:43-44). Jesus describes himself as the “GOOD SHEPHERD”. The Good Shepherd speaks and the sheep hear His voice and obey. The classic text where Jesus made extensive use of the image of the ‘shepherd’ is in John 10. That is where our Gospel reading of today comes from, as is the case every 4th Sunday of Easter. As a matter of fact, the 4th Sunday of Easter every year is known as “Good Shepherd Sunday”.
- THE SHEEP AND THE SPEPHERD
One of the lessons one may learn from the teaching of Jesus about the ‘shepherd’ is that there is some kind of unwritten covenant between the shepherd and his sheep. By the terms of that covenant, the shepherd commits himself to care for the sheep, to lead them to fresh and green pastures (Ps 23), to defend them against the wolf and other potential predators (Jn 10). The sheep, for their part, are expected to listen to the voice of the shepherd and follow where he leads. They are to follow him alone, and not strangers.
Where both parties are faithful to the terms of the covenant, all goes well for the sheep. The contrary is the case if either the shepherd or the sheep were to breach the terms of the covenant. The shepherd can do that if he is only a hireling and not the owner of the sheep. His interest in the sheep will not go beyond what it takes for him to earn his pay. He will not, for instance, risk his life to defend the sheep in the event of an attack by a wolf. The sheep can default on their own part of the covenant by refusing to listen to the voice of the shepherd and thereby choosing not to follow him. If and when that does happen, the sheep are exposed to grave danger from the wolf and other predators.
Jesus is the shepherd; we are his sheep. He has carried out his own part of the covenants with us to the letter. He cared for us to the point of laying down his life for us – literally, thereby freeing us from the clutches of the “wolf”, the ultimate predator, our “Ancient enemy”, Satan himself. Today’s gospel states very clearly just how much we mean to Jesus, and how he takes full responsibility for looking after us. He tells us that we are safe, really safe, when we are in his care.
- “MY SHEEP HEAR MY VOICE”
Jesus begins by emphasizing on the aspect of his sheep listening to his voice and following him: “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” (Jn 10:27) Here, we are invited to embrace the gift of redemption by hearing and recognizing the voice of the Good Shepherd. There are a lot of voices out there, beckoning, presenting themselves as authoritative and worthy of a devoted following. So much noise and commotion, a marketplace full claims and advertisements – political messiahs, gurus of the esoteric, interpreters of the Bible and the stars, advocates of errant lifestyles (guaranteed to make one happy). They want us to believe and to practice things that might seem pleasant, but are not truly of the Lord. We need to tune our ears and hearts into recognizing the voice of truth that comes from Jesus, the Good Shepherd. Just as Jesus is the Good Shepherd, we have the call to be Good Sheep. At this juncture, we are forced ask ourselves, ‘Whose voice is it that I am following? Is it the voice of the immoral elements of our society? Is it the voice of the popular but self-absorbed? Or do I follow the voice of the Lord?’ The Lord’s voice can be very clearly heard in his Word in the Bible. How often do we read the Bible? How often do we listen to God talk to us in the private moments of our lives, by reading the scriptures? No doubt, we, Catholics are often accused by Protestants for not reading and studying the bible sufficiently well. We own beautiful bibles, but we do not read them. How, then, can we adequately hear the voice of the shepherd?
From Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium, No. 171, we learn that it is important to listen. “We need to practice the art of listening, which is more than simply hearing. Listening, in communication, is an openness of heart which makes possible that closeness without which genuine spiritual encounter cannot occur. Listening helps us to find the right gesture and word which shows that we are more than simply bystanders. Only through such respectful and compassionate listening can we enter on the paths of true growth and awaken a yearning for the Christian ideal: the desire to respond fully to God’s love and to bring to fruition what he has sown in our lives”. As true sheep, we need to be good listeners of the shepherd’s voice in scripture.
- “I KNOW THEM (MY SHEEP) AND THEY FOLLOW ME”
Jesus, “The shepherd knows his sheep”. He knows each and every one of them and he can even call them by name (Jn 10:3). They trust him deeply as they stay close to him, and follow him. How is this possible?
In much of the world, animals belonging to various families are kept together in a large pen. This is particularly true regarding sheep. Now, sheep all look pretty much alike, perhaps except to each other. So if there are 200 sheep in a pen, how is a shepherd able to pick out his own 30 or 50 sheep? Actually, it is the sheep that do the work. The shepherd just stands at the entrance of the pen and calls to his sheep, or perhaps he just sings to them. His sheep know his voice and follow him out. If he is going through the hills and comes across another shepherd with his sheep going in the opposite direction, the sheep will mingle together. But each shepherd will just keep singing or calling, and his own sheep will follow the Master’s voice.
Calling someone’s name makes a great difference—(give examples). Calling someone’s name in a crowd or gathering can perform miracles. Imagine the guy who says to you for the third or fourth time, “Sorry, but I forget your name again!” (That can be very hurting!) It really shows a lack of interest in your person! God, on the other hand, knows us through and through; c.f. the prophet Jeremiah 1:5ff. (We are not just a number. God knows us!!!). “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you…”
In today’s computerized society we are no longer called by name. We are known by numbers. In some so-called developed societies, you are called by your checkbook number, your driver’s license number, your social insurance numbers, your credit card number. In our hospitals, courts, and other places of public services, clients are called “cases”, and so they are simply addressed as “Case number so-and-so”. But the Good Shepherd today reminds us that we must not allow that to happen in the church, in our homes and families, in our offices and other places of work. Each one of us is a distinct personality, with a distinct history and a distinct set of abilities and needs. Like the Good Shepherd, we must show this personal touch in the way we relate to one another. This is the way God relates to us, this is the way priests, all church ministers, civil servants and all those working in public offices should relate to the people of God.
- “I GIVE THEM ETERNAL LIFE”
For the good sheep, who choose to follow the example of the Good Shepherd, Jesus promises eternal life. “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.” (Jn 10:28). The True Sheep are confident of the Saviour’s promise of eternal life. What is this ‘eternal life’?
Jesus defines eternal life thus: “ETERNAL LIFE IS THIS: TO KNOW YOU, THE ONLY TRUE GOD, AND JESUS CHRIST WHOM YOU HAVE SENT.” (Jn 17:3). Eternal life is not to be thought of in terms of duration only. When some people think of eternal life, they think only of living forever and ever. St. Paul said that if a person lives only in pleasure, he/she is, as it were, dead while still living. That is, you can be living physically yet be dead spiritually. “For it is not eating and drinking that make the kingdom of God, but the saving justice, the peace and the joy brought by the Holy Spirit” (Rom 14:17). Eternal life is, therefore, a quality of life. It is life in fellowship, communion, oneness with God. It is life in the Spirit. It is as Christ described, it is the more the fullness, abundance life. “I have come so that they may have life and have it to the full” (Jn 10:10). It is the life that is described by David, when he declared, “My cup overflows.” (Ps 23:5)
- HOW IS ETERNAL LIFE ATTAINED?
This eternal life is attained not only by “doing a little religion” here and there. It is neither attained by some sweet verbal utterance about who God is. The Pharisees were very good at performing all types of acts of “righteousness”, yet Jesus criticized them saying: “if your uprightness does not surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of Heaven.” (Mtt 5:20). Instead, eternal life is attained by KNOWING THE TRUE GOD and also KNOWING JESUS CHRIST who was sent by the True God. (Jn 17:3). This does not mean Knowing God intuitively, as naturalist would do. For, many people deceive themselves into thinking that they know God. Jesus refutes such shallow knowledge of God when he says that on that day many will come saying, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, drive out demons in your name, work many miracles in your name?” Then I shall tell them to their faces: ‘I have never known you; away from me, all evil doers!’” (Mtt 7:22-23).
Knowing God, undoubtedly involves an element of “intellectual knowledge”. It means, at least in part, to know what God is like; and to have such a knowledge makes tremendous difference to life. But there is something else and more. To know God is to have an intimate personal relationship with him. Without Jesus such intimacy with God would be unthinkable and impossible. It is Jesus who taught men that God is not remote and unapproachable. He is the one who has taught us that God’s name is “Father” and his nature is “love”. To put things in the right perspective, St. John tells us that: “We know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says, ‘I know him’ without keeping his commandments, is a liar, and truth has no place in him. But anyone who does keep his word, in such a one God’s love truly reaches its perfection. This is the proof that we are in God.” (1Jn 2:3-5) In his letter to Titus, (Titus 1:16) St. Paul gives an example of what “knowing God” means: “They claim to know God but by their works they deny him; they are outrageously rebellious and quite untrustworthy for any good work. In this score, the Prophet Hosea laments: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (Hos.4:6). To crown it all, God exhorts us through the Prophet Amos: “Seek me (know me), and live” (Am.5:4)
- WORLD DAY OF PRAYER FOR VOCATIONS
Today is also World Day of Prayer for Vocations, a day that Christians are invited to reflect on the meaning of God’s call and to pray for vocations. “Vocation” is about listening and recognizing the Shepherd’s voice and responding to it. It is also about answering the call of Jesus to “feed his sheep”, as he charged Peter to do three times in last Sunday’s Gospel. Vocation Sunday is about praying for faithful shepherds, pastors – priests, religious and dedicated lay persons – who will truly “feed the sheep”, rather “FEED ON THE SHEEP”. Today, we are praying that many young people may listen attentively the voice of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, and follow His example of self-giving love. Today, we do not forget to pray also for those who have already opted and dedicated themselves to be shepherds of God’s people, especially our Bishops and priests, religious, civil and political leaders that they may follow the example of Jesus who was willing to serve and lay down His life for His sheep!