Good Shepherd Sunday
Fr. Mike Galbraith
Shepherds did not have sheepdogs in Jesus' time. They didn't need them, because sheep would follow their shepherd of their own free will. Jesus called himself a shepherd: the ‘People of God’ are not to be driven by fear but led freely by love. In the early centuries the figure of Jesus as a shepherd was a favorite one, and the earliest representation of him shows him as the good shepherd.
Shepherds were humble folk. If Jesus had been born in the Inn at Bethlehem rather than in the stable, the shepherds would not have been allowed in to visit him; this was the first signal of his accessibility. St Thomas Aquinas saw the same wisdom in the incarnation itself: the Word became flesh, he said, so that God would be accessible to us in Jesus.
The good shepherd, Jesus said, "lays down his life for his sheep." Who were the bad shepherds, then? Not the literal shepherds, the simple men on the hillside looking after their sheep. Not these, but the 'shepherds of the people', the leaders. In the Old Testament the term was applied to kings, royal officers, the elders, all who have any kind of authority. In nearly all Scriptural passages such 'shepherds' were being faulted for neglecting their responsibilities to the 'flock', the people. In Ezekiel 34 for example they are being severely reprimanded for neglecting "the weak, the sick the wounded, the strayed, the lost," for fattening themselves instead of tending to the needs of the flock. It is in contrast to these and to the religious authorities that Jesus calls himself the good shepherd. On every page of the gospel we find him seeking out these marginalized people: public sinners, lepers, Samaritans, the sick, the tormented… He stood up to the authorities for their sake, he defied the systems that made them outcasts, he laid down his life rather than turn his back on them and kow-tow to the authorities.
The imagery of shepherding has become so much part of the Christian mind that it becomes almost invisible. The words 'pastor' and 'pastoral' come from the Latin for shepherd. A bishop's crozier is a really a sort of stylish shepherd's stick. Those ancient shepherds carried a stick not to beat and prod their sheep but to beat off any wild animals that threatened the flock.
In today's reading, mention of the shepherd's death seems very sudden and unexpected, but in its own setting perhaps it was less so. Yes, your bishop and your pastor are expected to die if necessary, but mostly today it means that they are to give of themselves totally to their fold, the people within their parish. In fact, all Christians are challenged to place themselves second to others. To “Love one another as Jesus loved us.” The cross of Christ is not an ornament to hang on the wall but a pattern of Christian life.