The Good Shepherd
In this beautiful homily for 4th Sunday of Easter, Year A, Father Hanly looks at the importance of the Good Shepherd.
Readings for Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year A
- First Reading: Acts 2:14, 36-41
- Responsorial Psalm: Psalms 23:1-3, 3-4, 5, 6
- Second Reading: First Peter 2:20-25
- Gospel: John 10:1-10
We’re so familiar with the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, we forget what a kind of an amazing image it is for the Son of Man to take to himself. And, because of that, we have to look at little bit back into the history of shepherds.
Coming from Brooklyn, the only time I saw a shepherd was in the movies. And, of course, the only times we ever saw sheep were when they were served for Sunday dinner.
And yet I feel like I know all about shepherds. And I feel like I’ve been with shepherds. And I feel like I love shepherds and sheep and all that goes with the image. And it’s all because of Jesus, of course.
When we think of a shepherd, we think of many, many things. But in the Old Testament, if you think of a shepherd, you think of a man who spends his whole life with his sheep, taking care of them, raising them, loving them, healing them and, most of all, protecting them from all harm. And that’s the way the original shepherds were.
One of the reasons that the Jewish people love shepherds so much and they became part of their iconography (I can never pronounce that), they became part of understanding that God Himself was their shepherd, because, in the Old Testament, God says to Ezekiel, He says, “I am tired of you shepherds. I am going to take my own sheep and shepherd them myself because you neglect them, you don’t care for them, you don’t love them, you don’t take care of them, and so, one day, I will send a shepherd and he will be God Himself.”
And so it didn’t surprise anyone, because the founder of the Jewish people, the chosen people of God, was Abraham and, of course, Abraham was a shepherd. And what was his son? A shepherd. And what was his son? A shepherd. And all of the famous people who were the origin of the beginning of the chosen people of God, their leaders were all shepherds. And so it has a very unique and very important meaning.
But the idea of a shepherd comes to a new understanding when God stands before His people and when Jesus says these sacred words: “I am the shepherd.” Not a shepherd, not will become a shepherd. “I am the shepherd. My sheep know me and I know my sheep, and I give my sheep life, life itself.”
Why do we need something like that kind of help?
John Shea is a theologian and a very fine theologian. And he’s driving his mother to his uncle’s funeral. And he looks over and she’s very quiet. And he’s wondering. She usually has a lot to say, but she’s very quiet. And it’s a long ride and she never says anything.
And he looks at her and he figures well she’s mourning, she’s mourning the death of her brother. But she’s been through many mournings. She mourned the death of her mother and father. She mourned the death of her husband and she mourned the death of her sister-in-law. And now she’s mourning the death of a brother.
And then, all of a sudden, she opens her mouth and speaks. And she says these words to him, she says, “I’m not going to be afraid anymore. I’m not going to be afraid anymore.”
And then he’s quiet and he looks at her and he realises that this is a new mother. He thought she would say, “Oh, isn’t it sad,” or “Oh, I’m going to miss him,” and oh, all these things. But she says, “I’m never going to be afraid again.”
And he watched her for the next couple of weeks. And it was true. She became a bit of a changed person. She went out and did things. She looked up old friends. When people needed help she was there to help them. When the parish wanted some volunteers, she volunteered. She was always bright. She was always more cheerful. She was one of those people that you don’t really appreciate them until you don’t have them anymore. They do all the quiet, simple, little lovely things that we just take for granted.
And so it was that someone asked him what his mother was like, ten/fifteen years later. And he said, “I have two mothers. One was born in New York City and she was born like everybody else and given life. But I have another mother that was born on the way to a funeral.
“And she was born into a brand new life, because she took the Good Shepherd as her means to finally give her whole life into something that would last beyond the pain and the sorrow and the mayhem and everything else, but something that she could give her whole life to and say, ‘Yes, the Good Shepherd, he will always be with me and I will be one of his flock.’”
She needed a feeling that there was nothing in the world that she should be afraid of anymore. And she knew it was true. It was the Good Shepherd who lays his life down for the sheep and she knew that, for the rest of her life, she would lay her life down for the people of her community.
Another story: Tolstoy tells this story about a group of Russians, and they’re sitting at an inn and they’re working-class Russians.
And one Ivan says to the other one, he says to him, “Ivan, do you love me?”
And they’re drinking, of course, and Ivan says, “Yes, of course I love you.”
The other says, “Ivan, why are you saying you love me when you don’t even know me? You do not know what I need, what I hunger for, all the things that are important to me and you can’t give me one thing.”
And so Ivan says, “You’re drunk, that’s why you’re sad.”
And he says, “No, I’m sad because I’m sober and I’m all alone.”
That’s the second reason why the Good Shepherd is so important: because he is with us and he never leaves his sheep.
You know, in the old days, when the Jewish shepherds went out, first of all, they couldn’t read or write. They were not educated men. They were looked down upon. They were never allowed to give witness in a court case because they weren’t smart enough.
Worse than that, they would go out for days and sometimes weeks at a time, because the shepherds didn’t stay at home and go into a nice trim sheepfold. They went wandering where the grass was.
And so the shepherd would take them off sometimes two, three, four weeks before returning home. And wherever he found a few stones that were set around, he would make a little sheep area for them, a little protection against the wild animals. And he would leave the gate.
The gate wasn’t made of iron that you carried around. The gate was just an opening among the rocks that he had piled up all around to protect the sheep.
And that’s why Jesus can say, “I am the gate,” because the gate isn’t a thing, the gate is an opening into the sheep fold.
And the sheep when they’re inside the gate feel secure and feel happy and feel content. And, of course, they know that the gate opening was just about five feet.
And it was only five or six feet because when the shepherd got them all in, you can imagine there’s no electricity and it’s getting dark and all the sheep are in there, and he’s afraid maybe one is going to be late or two is going to be late, so he is the one who lays down in the space and sleeps as the gate so that the late sheep can kind of nudge him and get in or, which is even better, that the wild animals that are very anxious to get these lovely sheep, they would have to walk over his body in order to get in to the sheepfold. Very courageous.
When David volunteered to fight Goliath, they said, “You’re only a teenager. You’re not worth anything. What do you know? You have no experience.”
He says, “No, at the sheep gate, I defended my sheep from lions and tigers and leopards and wild dogs and thieves, and I drove them all away and they knew they were safe with me.” And it was true.
So now when Jesus says, “I am the gate,” he is saying more, “I am the Good Shepherd, the one who defends and takes care of and makes his sheep feel secure, and never loses them and lays his life down for them,” which Jesus does.
All of this and the two stories can be bound up into one basic idea: that when Jesus comes, the Son of God, he comes to give us life, to protect the life that God Himself gives us.
To end this, I’ll read a little reflection that comes from the writing of St Augustine. Do you know St Augustine? That’s at the fall of the Roman Empire, at that time that he was alive, and he was a great theologian. And this is what he says about shepherds and about how important not only they are, but how important we are for each other:
“My brothers and sisters, if you wish to have life, real life, do what the disciples at Emmaus did when they offered Him hospitality.”
Do you remember, last week, the stranger walking with the two men from Emmaus. The stranger, they invite him into the inn because they were afraid he was going away and the darkness is coming, and their hearts were burning when he explained the scriptures to them, yet they did not know who he was.
And then, when they were sitting there talking in the inn, he takes the bread and breaks it. And, right away, that was the great signal. The breaking of the bread meant the death of Jesus on the cross and they understood that he had (inaudible).
It also meant that the stranger was not a stranger, but he was Jesus who was saying, “Take and eat, this is me, this is my body which is given up for you.”
“They offered him hospitality. The Lord was set on continuing his journey but they contained him. Now, at the end of their journey they said to him, ‘Stay with us for the day is far spent.’ And the Lord revealed himself in the breaking of the bread. Hospitality restored to them what lack of faith had taken away,” for they ran away from Jerusalem and were going home.
“So,” and here’s the point, “if you wish to recognise the Saviour,” the one who is among you, the one who breaks bread for you, you must “take in the stranger,” just like the disciples did.
“Seek the Lord in the sharing of the bread.”
And in sharing the bread with each other, you will find the Good Shepherd.