The Fourth Sunday of Easter is commonly known as “Good Shepherd” Sunday, the day on which the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is proclaimed from St. John’s Gospel. After the Second Vatican Council and the publication of the three cycles of the Lectionary for Sunday Mass, the editors decided to present three different views of this image. In the A Cycle, Jesus was identified as the gate through which the sheep could enter into the safety of God’s care. In the B Cycle, Jesus himself is identified as the Good or Noble Shepherd, while at the same time describing the elders of Israel as hirelings. In today’s Gospel, the focus is upon the sheep themselves and their relationship to the shepherd. We hear of their enjoyment of eternal life already in the life of discipleship, and the thrice-repeated assurance that they shall not perish nor be snatched out of the shepherd’s hand at the final judgment.
The picture of shepherds that has developed over history is favorable, noble and honorable. However, in first century Israel, just the opposite was true. Shepherds were considered unclean because they could not observe the rules of ritual purity, especially the dietary laws, as they lived in the fields with their flocks. They were, consequently, unwelcome in the synagogue or in the homes of observant Jews. At the same time, as they sought good pasture for their sheep, they often were forced to violate the property rights of others which often caused them to be looked down upon by those who owned property. Their long absences from home made it impossible for them to protect the womenfolk of their families, an expected male role in this society. Their status in Jewish society made them highly undesirable individuals who were less than honorable. In his Gospel, St. Luke deliberately chooses them to hear the announcement of Jesus’ birth to accentuate the fact that Jesus came for all people, especially the outcasts of society. Despite this unfavorable description, Jesus identifies himself as a good shepherd, a noble person, and one with whom the sheep identify.
Interestingly enough, the first century notion of sheep was just the opposite. As in every culture, so too in the Mediterranean world, animals are interpreted and treated as symbols of the internal differences peculiar to this world. In the Western World, we like to say that a dog is man’s best friend. In the Eastern World, Mediterranean people noticed how sheep embodied the honorable attribute of suffering in silence. Isaiah says of the Suffering Servant: “Like a lamb led to the slaughter or a sheep before shearers, he was silent and opened not his mouth.” Sheep, therefore, are animals that symbolize honor.
Jesus uses these images to describe his followers while also investing the shepherd with honor. Jesus will not fail to protect his followers in their hour of need. In the second reading from the Book of Revelation, the sacred author speaks of the lamb who was slain and in whose blood the multitude has washed their robes. The white robed army of martyrs stands before the throne of the Lamb, singing his praises. We are told that they have survived the time of great distress. As we continue to read from the Book of Revelation, we will come to see this time of distress as the period of persecution that has been leveled against the Christian community by the Roman Empire.
Just as St. Luke bestowed the honor of being the first to hear of Jesus’ birth on the shepherds, the sacred writer of the Book of Revelation bestows honor on the great multitude of every nation, race, people, and tongue. No more will one nation be able to claim that they are the Chosen People. All people who place their faith in Jesus, regardless of their nationality, race, occupation or language, will be included. As we heard in the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, St. Paul preached that after the chosen people had rejected Jesus, the Gospel was to be preached to the Gentiles who have gladly opened their ears to the Word of God and have become believers.
Once again, our Scriptures emphasize that it is through hearing that we come to faith. “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.”
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator