Today’s Gospel passage for the Fourth Sunday of Easter is rather short and, thus, it needs some supporting information to make it adequately relevant to our spiritual life. Jesus introduces himself as our Shepherd. Perhaps the Psalm most familiar and dearest to us is Psalm 23: “the Lord is my Shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.”
However, even in our familiarity with that Psalm we are in no way hardwired to appreciate the role of Christ as our Shepherd and, even less, to accept our role as his sheep. It is hard for us to benefit from the messages that the Book of Revelation (7:9, 14-17) and the Gospel of John (10:27-30) offer to our consideration when the only images we have of shepherds, sheep and lambs are from holy cards and from the Bible.
Most likely we go through our entire life without having ever seen a real shepherd and very few of us have ever seen sheep up close. Sheep are domesticated animals that have the innate tendency to follow the sheep ahead of them in the same flock.
Calling someone a sheep is rarely considered a compliment! Sheep are people with little or no self-confidence, easily influenced, lacking in personality and character. Therefore, I think that we are in urgent need of rediscovering the significance and importance of shepherd and sheep in the spirit of God’s Word, the Bible.
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were all nomads and shepherds. So was Moses, King David and other relevant figures in the Old Testament.
The prophet Ezekiel refers to the Kings of Israel as shepherds. However, since many of them left a lot to be desired as shepherds, Yahweh God decided to shepherd his people himself:
Thus says the Lord GOD: I swear I am coming against these shepherds. I will claim my sheep from them and put a stop to their shepherding my sheep so that they may no longer pasture themselves. I will save my sheep, that they may no longer be food for their mouths. Ezekiel 34:10
And, in Jeremiah 3:15 this is what God promises: I will appoint over you shepherds after my own heart, who will shepherd you wisely and prudently.
This is the context in which Jesus introduces himself as our Shepherd. Yet, the picture of Jesus Christ as our Shepherd is not complete without the role of the Father in shaping him as a “shepherd after my own heart. ”
We find the answer in the New Testament letter to the Hebrews (12:5-12). It reflects accurately how all Hebrew fathers had to train their sons very harshly, from age 12, to face with courage the hardships and the cruel dealings of life as adults. So, according to the letter to the Hebrews, this is also how God the Father “disciplined” his Son Jesus to get him ready for the worst hardships of life on earth and the cross and to become our Shepherd according to the Father’s heart!
However, Revelation 7:9, 14b-17 presents an apparent contradiction: it combines the image of Jesus as Shepherd with the image of Jesus as the Lamb of God.
Is Jesus our Shepherd or a lamb?
Thankfully, the prophet Isaiah offers us a reassuring and enlightening explanation: the Father had toughened up Jesus so well that he became our Shepherd, our Leader to the pastures of heaven by becoming the sacrificial Lamb whose Blood opens for us the springs of life-giving water, the water of grace. Or, to borrow Jesus’ own words: to “give them eternal life.”
Though he was harshly treated, he submitted and opened not his mouth; Like a lamb led to the slaughter or a sheep before the shearers, he was silent and opened not his mouth. Isaiah 53:7
With Jesus as our Shepherd, we should be much honored to be his sheep. With such a Shepherd there should be nothing sheepish about us. We are not supposed to follow the sheep ahead of us but to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus (Hebrews 12:2) even when we follow him up the rugged road to Calvary.
The implication of the following statement: “My sheep hear my voice” should be that, by choice, we ignore all others voices, including those that undermine the Gospel messages and are unbecoming of our Christian calling. As trusting and obedient sheep, aware that no one can take us out of his hand, we are expected to heed Jesus’ voice as he prepares us to accept and to face with courage, self-discipline and resolve the inevitable hardships of life on the way to the springs of life-giving water. Furthermore, “My sheep hear my voice” confirms that, through his blood shed on the cross, Jesus knows us each by name, in a detailed and personal way.
Hence, it gives us reassurance that Jesus, our Shepherd and Paschal Lamb, deals with every one of us as the unique, most precious and unrepeatable person that we each are. There is no boring, bland uniformity in Jesus’ flock: he knows our skills and inclinations, our likes and dislikes, our strengths and weaknesses, what frightens us and what lifts us up, what weighs us down and what elates us.
Jesus is the only one with the complete picture of our being; and he loves us in that completeness. Jesus doesn’t love only what is lovable in us thus far, but in the unlimited possibilities of who we can become with his help. As Shepherd, he tends to our wounds so that we may soon walk expeditiously again on the path to the heavenly fold. The Sacrament of Reconciliation should be approached in this spirit.
It is strongly recommended therefore that, now and then, we pause to appreciate his loving care, his words of forgiveness and encouragement, as well as feel the reassurance of his presence so that we may decide to follow him always with unwavering trust towards the green pastures of heaven.
This essay originally appeared on Catholic Journal