The Image of the Shepherd

Douglas McManaman
April 27, 2023
Homily: 4th Sunday of Easter
Reproduced with Permission

In today's gospel, Jesus says: "I am the gate for the sheep. Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture". This expression "come in and go out" is a Hebrew expression that is found in many places in the Old Testament, and it refers to the ability to come and go unharmed. It is the Jewish way of describing a life that is absolutely secure and safe. When people can go in and out without fear it means that their country is at peace. The leader of the nation is to be a person who can "bring them out and lead them in", that is, create the conditions for peace. Christ is the good shepherd who makes it possible for us to go out and come in. In him is our security, our safety.

The image of shepherd is a very important one for Christ; for the life of a shepherd was hard and dangerous. He was on constant watch and was a person of fearless courage; for it was his task to guard the flock against wolves, and he had to be on the lookout for thieves and robbers who were always plotting to steal sheep. In other words, he was never off duty.

In Palestine, the ground was rocky and rough with patches of grass, so the sheep would tend to wander as they look for grass. The plateau on which the sheep grazed was typically narrow, the edge dipping down to uneven desert ground, so the sheep were liable to fall away. When lost, they would lie down and not move. The point is that they could not find their way back to the sheepfold. That of course is the reason the shepherd had to go out looking for a lost sheep. And Christ is the good shepherd who goes looking for his lost sheep, looking for those who have wandered away from his protection.

This is an important point, because many of us who practice faithfully tend to worry about those in our families who are lost, who have strayed, who are no longer part of the sheepfold, for whatever reason. But what I have noticed over the years is that some of these faithful Catholics who worry about their loved ones who have strayed some distance seem to have forgotten this image of Christ the good shepherd. This is not the image of one who stays inside, like a king Herod or a prince in his palace who feasts on the finest foods and who loves having everyone fawn all over him, who has others serve his every whim. Rather, this is the image of a shepherd, whose life is hard and who stays outside, who must have a fearless courage to confront wolves, thieves and robbers, who has a single-minded devotion to his sheep, each one of whom he knows by name. This is the shepherd who goes out looking for even one who strays and cannot find its way back, not one who sits back waiting for the lost sheep to come to him. This is a shepherd who loves our sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, parents, etc., more than we do.

We do have a tendency to project our own limitations onto God, especially the limitations of our patience and love. And although we love our children, relatives, and friends, we don't have the power to bring them back or to bring about their greatest happiness. And so, we panic. However, not only does God love those we love more than we love them, he has the power to bring about their greatest happiness. If we don't believe that, if we don't trust that this is the case, we may take it upon ourselves to try to control matters and orchestrate things in a way that we think is best for others. In doing so, we can and probably will drive our loved one away even further, because a God who loves my son or daughter or friend with my limited love can only disappoint and cause them to rebel. Our task, as John the Baptist clearly understood, is to decrease so that he may increase. Too often we can get in the way with our own dogmatism and self-righteousness, and we end up doing more harm, perpetuating the wounds that others carry, wounds that were the reason for their straying away in the first place. We can't heal their wounds, but Christ can, because he chose to enter into our sufferings. Because he is fully man, he can suffer the worst trauma, which he did, but since he is also fully God who is eternal, his presence in human trauma is an eternal presence and so it cuts across time. The result is that the darkness of all human suffering contains a presence, a divine life, the heart of the good shepherd, by whose wounds we have been healed, as Peter tells us in the 2nd reading.

And so, all we have to do for those who have strayed is love them with the heart of the shepherd, and like a good shepherd go out to meet them, find them, pay attention to them, and decrease so that Christ may increase in us, and surrender them into his hands, trusting that he loves them more than we do and can change them in the blink of an eye.