Jesus identifies himself as the Good Shepherd. In the time of Jesus, the phrase ‘Good Shepherd” would have been considered a contradiction in terms – kind of like today saying a “Good Lawyer” or a “Good politician” Shepherds were usually hired hands who were responsible for looking after someone else’s sheep – but they were often not very reliable – as Jesus says they might run when the wolf comes or often they would steal – one of the sheep would disappear because the shepherd gave it to a friend or used it for his own family.
Hence the prophets used this image to describe often the kings of Isreal or the religious leaders – like the shepherds who took advantage of their flock these bad kings took advantage of Israel. In the book of Ezekiel God says he is going to take the sheep away from these bad shepherd and that HE HIMSELF will look after the sheep. This is the same image that inspires the psalm – “The Lord is my shepherd” God himself will look after his flock and no longer entrust it to hired hands.
This gives deep meaning to Jesus’ words in the Gospel. By saying ‘I am the Good Shepherd” Jesus is saying that he is God who has come to look after and care for his flock. Jesus is a shepherd unlike any other shepherd. He turns the image of a Shepherd upside down.
I must be honest – I never really understood the image of the good shepherd . I grew up on a farm – now we did not have sheep – we had cattle and pigs. And while in some stretched poetic sense you could say that we loved our animals. We took care of them for sure, we fed them well, we did not abuse them – but we did so not for their sake but for ours – we wanted to fatten them, slaughter them and eat them. Yes we loved our animals – but we loved them most of all when they were barbequed.
Hence thinking of Jesus as a shepherd to me is not very comforting – the shepherd uses his sheep for their wool, their milk and eventually he would eat them. It is a utilitarian relationship. No shepherd in his right mind would risk his life to save his sheep. Yet Jesus is the opposite. Instead of the sheep dying to feed the shepherd, Jesus the good shepherd dies to feed the sheep. We eat and our nourished by his body and blood. This is what is so powerful about the image of the good shepherd is that Jesus even though he is the shepherd gives his life for the sheep.
Jesus gives his life for us. He does so freely – this is his choice – “no one takes my life, I lay it down and I take it up again” By serving us and sacrificing himself for us he flips around the normal relationships of society – Man is to give his life for his wife, Man and wife are to sacrifice themselves for their children, the strong are to serve the weak, the rich to support the poor, those in positions of power are called to serve to give themselves for their people, especially those who are leaders within the Church: never can a religious vocation be seen as a privilege, a perk, it is an opportunity to lay down one’s life like the good shepherd. Let us examine our relationships – do we expect others to serve us or are we willing to sacrifice of ourselves to give life to others?
Today we celebrate good shepherd Sunday, which is the international day of prayer for vocations – priests, deacons, religious brothers and sisters. The life of the Church depends upon us all, but in a special way on those who lay down their whole lives to serve God’s flock just like the good shepherd. Let us pray that many will be generous – including men and women from our own parish.