This morning’s Gospel reading is John 10:1–10:
“Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever does not enter a sheepfold through the gate but climbs over elsewhere is a thief and a robber. But whoever enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens it for him, and the sheep hear his voice, as the shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has driven out all his own, he walks ahead of them, and the sheep follow him, because they recognize his voice. But they will not follow a stranger; they will run away from him, because they do not recognize the voice of strangers.” Although Jesus used this figure of speech, the Pharisees did not realize what he was trying to tell them.
So Jesus said again, “Amen, amen, I say to you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy; I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.”
Besides the cross, the most prevalent analogical image of Jesus Christ over the last two millennia has to be that of The Good Shepherd. Some of the earliest Christian art depicts Jesus as a shepherd among a flock, including among the funerary carvings and engravings of the earliest Christians. The imagery extends to this very day in the Catholic Church. Archbishops wear a pallium made of wool, a reference to carrying lost lambs on the shoulders, and all bishops have a crozier to symbolize their role as shepherds of Christ’s flock in their diocese.
Jesus understood the power of this analogy, especially during the time of the Gospel. Goat and sheep farming was an ubiquitous and essential part of their communities and their culture, and as we see in today’s passage, the work was so well understood that it could be used to explain more complicated issues. (As we see above, it still mystified some of Jesus’ audience, so He spoke more directly.) Early artists hoping to capture the essence of Christ and His teachings would also have had that same familiarity, and would have been drawn to that analogy perhaps more than any others.
However, the power of this analogy — and the way Jesus uses it in the Gospels — goes beyond a familiarity with sheep farming. This allegory gets directly to our hearts because we share a common spiritual sense at various times in our lives — that of being lost. Whether it lasts for moments or for decades, we all have times when we have drifted away, lost our bearings, and suddenly feel as though we have no connection to either the Lord or our own flocks. We go out on our own, head off into another direction, and that’s when we get into trouble.
Perhaps the biggest trouble we find is when we forget that we’re the sheep and not the shepherd. We strike out on our own and assume our own invulnerability. Certainly, there were periods of my life when it seemed braver, more daring, and a bit revolutionary to assert that I needed no shepherd, Good or otherwise, and I could shepherd myself. Who needs a shepherd when I can just reason my way through spiritual and philosophical dilemmas on my own?
That’s hardly a unique sin; in fact, it’s Original Sin. Adam and Eve disobeyed the Lord because they felt they could do His job for themselves. They saw themselves as the highest authority, and wound up in ruination. Salvation history is replete with other examples — the kings of Israel that wanted earthly power rather than serve the Lord as the leaders of a nation of priests to succor the world, for instance — and the complete misreading of the nature of the Messiah would complete that cycle. The Judeans missed the Messiah because Jesus didn’t offer what they had decided they needed, rather than listen for the Word of God.
Jesus notes that sheep that do not remain in the flock become prey for thieves and robbers (and later also for the wolf, about which more later). That’s certainly true, but there’s also another danger in getting lost, which is that most often we wind up going in circles. Being sheep in the spiritual world, we cannot master the terrain on our own. Without the Lord providing guidance, we end up going over and over the same ground while making no progress at all. And when we finally realize just how lost and alone we are, we suddenly realize the need for a Good Shepherd — one who calls us continually even when we refuse to listen, and who welcomes us when we finally do.
This brings up another point, an issue which we all have in common too. What do we do when we see others leave the flock, get lost, and reject the Shepherd — or have not yet heard His call? It’s very tempting to run out after them, getting lost as they are, to start yelling at them to get back into the flock, or to turn our backs in anger and betrayal. Those temptations are natural, but when we do that, we forget again that we are the sheep and not the Shepherd, and that we have at times gone astray ourselves, as Peter reminds us in today’s reading from his first epistle. “For you had gone astray like sheep, but you have now returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.”
Just as we have to learn to trust ourselves to the Good Shepherd as part of having faith, so too must we trust the flock to His care, even those we find most precious. We can point them out to the Lord, and know that He will call to them as long as it takes for them to hear — just as he has done for us. And in the meantime, we need to love them all the more.
It’s that self-giving caritas of the Good Shepherd that connects to us with such force. The Good Shepherd has the power to cast us out or refuse to allow us to return, but He sets aside that power to offer forgiveness and welcome instead. In the next verses after today’s Gospel, Jesus explains further (John 10:11-18):
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand, and not a shepherd, who doesn’t own the sheep, sees the wolf coming, leaves the sheep, and flees. The wolf snatches the sheep, and scatters them. The hired hand flees because he is a hired hand, and doesn’t care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own, and I’m known by my own; even as the Father knows me, and I know the Father. I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep, which are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will hear my voice. They will become one flock with one shepherd. Therefore the Father loves me, because I lay down my life, that I may take it again. No one takes it away from me, but I lay it down by myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. I received this commandment from my Father.
Going astray is the human condition. God’s self-sacrificial love expressed through Christ is the antidote to the yearning at the core of our beings to find our way out of the wilderness and back into the Truth. The Lord truly is our shepherd, and when we acknowledge that, we find that there is truly nothing we shall want.
The front page image is from the mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna, Italy (425-50 AD).
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.