April 21, 2024

As Christians, we recognize Jesus as the Good Shepherd, who has laid down his life for us. All four Gospels use the metaphor of Jesus as shepherd. Indeed, the image is deeply woven into the language of the Old Testament, where God is often described as a shepherd and Israel as his chosen flock. The language of the image continues to give us some of our most beloved spiritual images. We need only recall the opening words of Psalm 23, The Lord is my shepherd, to see this.

In first century Palestine, the picture of grazing sheep, protected by their shepherd, was a common one. Given the rockiness and aridity of the highlands of Judea and the dangers from wild animals and thieves, the protection and welfare of one’s flock was considered of number one importance for shepherds. For their part, the sheep seemed to know that their welfare depended on staying close to the shepherd because they responded only to his call. It was a relationship of reciprocity: the shepherd directed the sheep to fertile green pastures and kept a close eye out for danger, while the sheep listened and followed his voice. So, the image of the Church as the flock conjures up the idea of a community united with a common purpose and identity, and gathered together under a self-giving and protective leader.

Given the familiarity of this image and its deep biblical roots, it is no surprise that Jesus chose this metaphor when addressing the Pharisees about his mission to Israel. What is new, however, is how he uses it not just to speak of himself, but to contrast the Good Shepherd with the shepherd who is merely the hired hand. The difference is that the Pharisees and Scribes behave as though they are temporary shepherds, hired from an agency. Yes, they fulfill their basic duties to Israel, but they have no lasting or loving commitment to the people entrusted to their care – God’s Chosen People. When the duties become too onerous or dangerous they will, like hired help, simply abandon their post and their flock. While they are keen to enforce religious law and duties, they are not keen to bandage the wounded, carry the lame, defend the powerless or place themselves between the flock and impending danger.

In direct contrast, Jesus gives us a powerful insight into how he sees his mission to Israel and, by extension, to the whole world.

Like the Good Shepherd, he is faithful and will offer up his own life for the sake of those entrusted to his care. Those who hear his voice will know that he is trustworthy, and he will lead and guide them along the right path, the path that will lead to everlasting life.

If we apply this idea of good and bad shepherds to today’s Church, we might think the challenge is meant only for priests and bishops. In reality, though, it applies to all of us. We are challenged to look into our hearts and judge the generosity of our service to the people around us. Each one of us, by virtue of our baptism, is called to share the Good News and live faithfully the teachings of the Gospel. We are also called to imitate Jesus, the Good Shepherd. This means what we say should be true, and our lives should be full of compassion and concern for others. By living in this way, Jesus can use us as an instrument of his love, providing those around us with the opportunity to hear and respond to his call. Then he will be able to shepherd them, as well, on the way to eternal life.