We celebrated the good shepherd Sunday in church today. Permit to share some quick, rough and not too well coordinated thoughts on the significance of this Sunday’s gospel reading for me. I have attached the gospel reading for easy reference.
Gospel Jn 10:11-18
“I am the good shepherd.
A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
A hired man, who is not a shepherd
and whose sheep are not his own,
sees a wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away,
and the wolf catches and scatters them.
This is because he works for pay and has no concern for the sheep.
I am the good shepherd,
and I know mine and mine know me,
just as the Father knows me and I know the Father;
and I will lay down my life for the sheep.
I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.
These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice,
and there will be one flock, one shepherd.
This is why the Father loves me,
because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.
No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own.
I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again.
This command I have received from my Father.”
The mention of the shepherd brings to mind easily one of the most popular psalms in the Christian scriptures – Psalm 23, a psalm which we all love so much! I will therefore use this psalm as a convenient launch pad to approach today’s gospel reading. Yes, psalm 23 is great. Its assurances are immense! Our cups run over; our heads are anointed with fine oil; goodness and mercy follow us; and God leads us to green pastures…and all of this in the presence of our enemies who we are happy to imagine, with considerable glee, must be gnashing their teeth at our good fortune! Well perfumed oil, abundance of fresh wine, a table running over with the best of dishes, green pastures! Read green pastures as a metaphor for the good, the abundant, the flourishing and you begin to see why this psalm has so much appeal to us all. Why not? Who no like better thing? A colleague whose name is Mercy got so taken by it that she named her daughter “Goodness”! Psalm 23 is the good life! Indeed, so popular is this psalm in Nigeria that pidgin versions are now circulating with authors struggling to out-do themselves in creativity – lexical and syntactic, in ever newer versions!
But what the fondness for this psalm conveniently omits to consider or prefers to gloss over is the total surrender and deep obedience by the sheep that is implied in a sheep/shepherd relationship. Christ spells out this relationship very clearly in the gospel reading. He is the good shepherd and we the flock of His pasture. The sheep know, recognize and heed the voice of the shepherd when he calls. The sheep trust the shepherd completely. The sheep do not direct the shepherd! The sheep do not lead the shepherd. If they did, perhaps we would have verse like – “The Lord is my shepherd and I make HIM lead me to green pastures”! The shepherd speaks and the sheep respond.
The good shepherd lays down his or her life for his/her flock. He or she is willing to stay with the flock through thick or thin. Not so the hired hand who the scripture tells us abandons sheep and takes off at the first sign of danger. The commitment of the good shepherd is therefore total. Devotion is total and the interest of the flock is the predominant priority. He or she lives for the flock, does not exploit them, does not betray them, does not steal from them. The good shepherd is therefore the model of the perfect service and one which commends itself to our preachers, pastors and politicians of today. How many of these act in manners that are suggestive of the devotion of this good shepherd? Very few! For the truth is that most have come to steal and to loot and devour the sheep they are supposed to look after! Any wonder that the sheep now desert their shepherds in such a relationship? Any wonder that the sheep no longer respond to the call of the shepherd? This type of relationship is a far cry from the ideal bonding relationship between a good shepherd and his/her flock. In such a relationship, the sheep flock around their shepherd. They hear his voice and he/she feels their needs.
In such a relationship characterized by trust, honest service, predictability and security, the sheep do not respond to the voice of a stranger, nor do they follow the stranger no matter how appealing the call or flute of that stranger is. The call of the stranger is to the false attractions and ephemeral comforts of this world. It is an invitation to the fake things of this world, to transient pleasures but slippery slopes and to things that could lead us in the long term to moral and spiritual death. It is a call that could promise at the beginning the lushness of wealth but which soon traps us in an arid wasteland of hopelessness and despair, something I call the Judas phenomenon where for the immediacy of cheap gain, you sell your soul to the tempter! Bad decisions have huge opportunity costs, and despite our claims and aspirations to rationality, we do show a particular tendency or such bad decisions, and this tendency is worse the more we are cut of from our good shepherd. The shepherd/sheep imagery thus assumes a heightened significance for an error prone and frail humanity, a humanity whose choice capacities are often vitiated by excessive focus on the here and now, yes with short-termism and also by a tendency towards hedonism.
But not so, the good shepherd! He leads and guides his flock. He instructs them to be good in good times and in bad times. The good sheep know that life will not always be green, that life will not always be on the upswing. Valley and the shadow of death signify difficult times, but in these periods, the sheep are sure of the constancy of the good shepherd. The metaphor of the obedient sheep thus provides us with a model of obedience and faith driven responding when we pass through our own valleys, when we walk through our dark moments and when life throws rough tackles at us. And such moments are never in short supply – those moments exactly when we feel we should abandon our shepherd and search for a new one, usually a merchant of honey coated platitudes and utopia who would promise us quick fixes and wonder cures!
The good sheep would not do such a thing – they have an alliance marked by solidity, constancy and complete trust with their shepherd. They know that the words of their shepherd in John 10:10 that He has come so that they may have life in abundance is true – they know a price has been paid to secure and insure this promise and prize. They also know that the price to pay to win this prize at the end our race is obedience and complete and undoubting faith.
May God renew us, may He renew our faith, and may He open our eyes and ears to the signs and voice of the good shepherd. May we learn to sing the famous words of John Cardinal Newman – Lead, kindly light
May we surrender to be led by the good shepherd.
May worthy servants and faithful models of the good shepherd emerge to lead the ever growing flock.
May we also have the Graces to reach out and invite others to join this flock and may goodness and mercy surround us as we do. And I am sorry this has turned out to be longer than I had wanted and I feeling too lazy to consider any pruning exercise!