There is an old Italian saying: “The fish stinks form the head down”, This has been a guiding principle of the church since the beginning and the human reality behind the image of the Good Shepherd in St. John‘s gospel.
The community which St. John formed was begun by Jews who knew their history. They saw the rise and fall of kings and how that affected the lives of common people. They knew the book of Ezekiel and his use of the shepherd image. He wrote when the Babylonians had conquered Jerusalem and brought the Jewish leaders to their capital as captives. Ezekiel thought that the people had been scattered because the leaders – shepherds – had pastured themselves and not the sheep. (Ez 34:8)
The LORD himself, however, did not permit this to continue. Although the people were captive in a foreign country, he gathered them together and brought them back to Jerusalem in the greatest miracle of the Old Testiment. (Ez 34:13) He became the shepherd and promised that the time would come when he would send his anointed one “the Messiah” to lead them. (Ez 34:23) The Jewish people lived in hope for this shepherd.
John understood that Jesus as the Messiah was this shepherd. Indeed, he was “the” Shepherd, the only one. Only he has the right to lead the sheep. The image of the sheepfold and the gatekeeper would be immediately understood by ancient people and shepherds to this very day. To protect the sheep at night many flocks were brought together and only one shepherd was needed to be on duty to protect them. He was the gatekeeper. In the morning, the shepherds would come and call to the sheep and his sheep would hear his call and follow him. The gatekeeper will only allow the Shepherd – Jesus – to call his sheep, that is his disciples.
It is a beautiful image, but there is a problem. What happens when people disagree about the meaning of one of Jesus teachings, or don’t like one another or someone seeks to be a leader like the bad shepherds of old. Who makes the decisions? This occurred many times and it is worked out in the text of John itself. If you are interested in this you can find the outline on the online notes for this homily, but now we will jump to the conclusion. (Sr 4 16 23)
After Jesus rose from the dead, he spent some time with the apostles. In one of the loveliest stories he invited them for breakfast by the seashore. (Jn 21) He asks Peter three times if he loved them more than the others. Three times Peter tells them that he does and each time he is told to feed my lambs. Finally, Jesus tells Peter that he will die for the sheep. (Jn 21:15-19) The principal difference between a good shepherd and bad one is that “A good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.” (Jn 10:11)
When leadership is not joined with self-sacrifice the leaders will begin to stink and become thieves who slaughter and destroy. A leader who sacrifices for others will bring life and bring it as Jesus does: eternally and abundantly.
This is the 4th Sunday of Easter. A passage from John 10 is always read and it is often called “Good Shepherd Sunday”. In my youth, the priest would give a vocation talk, often telling his own story. I am glad this custom has ended. My story is very boring: I wanted to be a priest since childhood, became one and have had a very happy life. Little drama or adventure. The other reason is more profound. More than just priests must become good shepherds.
There are many voices in the world today. Some are very enticing and reflect parts of the truth, but only Jesus is the source of pure and living truth. Yet who will know this? Fewer and fewer people attend religious services of any kind, our media is omnipresent but shallow at best and people who do believe are often reluctant to speak of their faith. Jesus may have risen to sound of trumpets but who is proclaiming him now?
To be a good Christian, you must be a good shepherd. You are in the world in a way that priests are not and only through you will the voice of Jesus be heard.
If you understand what I have just said, then you should be quite reluctant and a bit scared. Remember Jesus’ interrogation of Peter. He is not only told to put others before him, but is reminded that he must be prepared to give up everything including his life. You will not be called to give up your life for our faith, but martyr in Greek means witness. Our neighbors and friends may need nothing more than the gospel, but we can presume that they do not want to hear it and will resist.
It is also true that the people who show no reluctance to share their faith can be extremely obnoxious and often amazingly ignorant about even the basics of Christianity. This should inform the strategy of every other Christian. Politely addressing patently absurd ideas that people have of Christian, particularly Catholic beliefs can be very effective. Many believe that we worship Mary and assume that anyone who does not dot their I’s and cross their T’s like us is going to hell. Such conversations are especially valuable if you can guide the conversation back to the love of Jesus. Pope Francis gives a master class on reaching people in his Hulu special with young people. The questions were real, raw, and provocative, but he found something positive in each one and brought them back to Jesus.
Sometimes, however, silence speaks loudest. My father told me that when people speak badly of others, especially if they use racial slurs, leave the room and people find you. Good people want support – much happens if you show you will give it.
In this world, you are called to be a leader. May people hear Jesus fresh and new when they hear you.