On this the Fourth Sunday of Easter in all three years of the liturgical cycle we get an extract from the tenth chapter of St John’s Gospel in which Jesus tells his disciples that he is the Good Shepherd. It is for this reason that it is often called Good Shepherd Sunday and is kept as a day of prayer for priestly and religious vocations.
I don’t know how deeply you have studied the Gospel of John, but if you have read it through you will have noticed that it is strikingly different from the other three Gospels and one of those differences is that there are no parables in it. When you consider that in the Synoptic Gospels the parables form the core of Christ’s teaching this makes John’s Gospel markedly different.
Instead of parables John has Jesus using metaphors which often come with the prefix ‘I am’, examples of these are: I am the True Vine, I am the Light of the World, I am the Bread of Life. And of course, the one we are considering today: I am the Good Shepherd.
Actually, the word we translate as ‘good’ is rendered in the original Greek as kalos. It can be translated as good but also as beautiful or honourable and sometimes as ideal. However, when we say in English that Jesus is the ‘Good’ Shepherd it could have the possible negative connotation of being a bit soppy or pious.
According to me the word kalos would be better translated as ideal. Jesus is telling us that he is the perfect shepherd, the one whom all other shepherds should take as their model. This fits in quite well with the Church’s choice of this as Vocations Sunday. Jesus is the one, true, ideal shepherd which all who aspire to be pastors in the Church should take as their exemplar.
One of the key jobs of a shepherd is to protect his flock. Sheep are vulnerable to attack by predators and have no real defences which means that they need to be guarded twenty-four hours a day. Often in the evening several shepherds would come together and put their sheep in an enclosure on the hillside and take turns in watching during the night. Specifically, in the text Jesus identifies the wolf as the enemy of the sheep.
Jesus also talks about him knowing his sheep. If we had a hundred sheep put in front of us we would be unable to tell one from another because, according to us, they all look the same. But to the shepherd each sheep has its own unique characteristics. The shepherd might not actually give them individual names, but he knows one from another. He knows how much milk they produce and is aware of which diseases they are prone to; he knows which are the good ones and which are the naughty; to him they are a collection of unique individuals.
This image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is a good one; Jesus needs to protect us from the Evil One and he recognises that we are highly individual, each with our own unique personalities and particular problems. He has oversight of us all as a group, but he also knows each one by name. In fact, you could say that Jesus knows us better than we even know ourselves.
Christ leads us principally by means of the sacraments and through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. By Baptism he leads us into the fold of the Church; in the Eucharist he feeds us with his body and blood; in reconciliation he leads us to repentance and heals us of our ills. And in the evening of life he gently leads us into his kingdom of love and peace.
The logical follow through from this metaphor of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is that we are his sheep. This begs the question as to whether we are as good sheep as we should be.
It might be worth looking at what constitutes being ‘good sheep’. Firstly, if Jesus knows his sheep then the sheep also ought to know the shepherd and be very familiar with him.
For us this means studying the scriptures and staying close to Jesus in prayer. We ought to know Jesus very well, we should be completely familiar with him and be aware of his wishes for us. Our deepest desire ought to be to please him in all things.
Also, a good sheep follows where the shepherd leads. Some sheep are prone to straying and frequently get themselves into tricky situations. But good and obedient sheep stay close to the shepherd and go where he leads them. Bad sheep follow anyone who comes by, but when dangers come along these false shepherds run away and leave the sheep unprotected. So, if we are to be good sheep we need to stay close to our true shepherd and follow his commands in all things.
The good sheep also joyfully accepts the food that its master offers. He brings them to rich pastures where they can fill themselves with nourishing grass. He stops them from eating toxic plants and in this way keeps them safe. We too need to take what the Lord gives us; we ought to enrich ourselves spiritually by frequenting the sacraments and nourishing our souls with prayer and spiritual reading.
We should avoid consuming the poisonous food that the devil offers because we know that this corrupts us at a very profound level. No, we need to stick to the rich and healthy pastures which Jesus leads us to and stay away from all that can do us harm.
From all this we can see how, without stretching the metaphor too far, it is important for us to accept Jesus as our good and ideal shepherd as well as for us to commit ourselves to being good and biddable sheep. Jesus is not only our shepherd, he is our Divine Saviour; he has given his life for our salvation and we ought to do our very best to follow where he leads.
I ought to say a word about vocations since this is Vocations Sunday. Although we can experience a call to service in the Church at any age we would be wise to address our young people since God often calls people to become priests and religious in their youth. It is important for our young people to develop a rich life of prayer because it is in prayer that God makes his wishes known to us.
It is vital for our young people to develop a good habit of prayer and to realise that this is not something to be confined to the times we go to mass. We should pray in the morning and the evening and at other times during the day. If we are waiting at the bus stop or if we find a few minutes in the classroom waiting for others to finish their work, then these moments can also be filled with prayer.
Prayer is essential in the life of a Christian and without prayer we will be unable to know where God is leading us in life and will be more likely to go astray. With prayer as an important element of our life we will be more easily able to recognise the path on which God is leading us and therefore more likely to find a true and fulfilling vocation in life.
The Church needs priests as well as religious brothers and sisters. If God is calling you it is important that you recognise this at an early stage so that you can take up your calling and find fulfilment in ministry to others in the Church. You can be assured that we are all supporting you in this vital discernment with our own prayers.