You do not need to have grown up in a farm or among sheep or other livestock to understand the relationship between the shepherd and the sheep. If you’re a pet owner, you can sense a little bit the idea percolated in today’s gospel about the shepherd knowing his sheep and the sheep hearing the voice of the shepherd. In a certain small-claims court where two individuals fought over the ownership of a puppy, the judge decided the case by letting the dog loose to determine the party to whose direction the puppy would proceed. There’s also reason why a dog would bark at strangers as opposed to its owner to whom it wags its tail.
Every year, on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, the gospel reading is taken from the 10th Chapter of St. John’s Gospel where Jesus teaches lessons on the sheep, the sheepfold, the gate or door of the sheepfold and about shepherds—good and bad. He tells us that He is that Good Shepherd who lays down His life for His sheep. The reference to laying down His life for the sheep and taking it up again has a resurrection motif and explains why the Easter season is the opportune time to reflect on the Good Shepherd. Hence, the Fourth Sunday of Easter is normally called the Bonus Pastor or Good Shepherd Sunday. Lest someone misunderstand the use of the metaphor of the shepherd and the sheep or feel demeaned by being called sheep, Jesus makes a direct connection of His being a shepherd with the paschal mystery through which He laid down His life, took it up again—resurrected—in order to gather together the flock entrusted to Him—whether they are currently part of the sheepfold, the Church, or exist in various sects and traditions of the world religious bodies.
By calling Himself the Good Shepherd, and we, the sheep, Jesus shows that there’s an intimate relationship between Him and us, fostered by prayer and the sacraments of the Church, His true sheepfold. The Catechism teaches that “the Church is, accordingly, the sheepfold, the sole and necessary gateway to which is Christ. It is also the flock of which God himself foretold that he would be the shepherd, and whose sheep, even though governed by human shepherds, are unfailingly nourished and led by Christ himself, the Good Shepherd and Prince of Shepherds, who gave his life for his sheep” (CCC 754). We must therefore learn the voice of our shepherd through the Church and in the intimacy of prayer.
Many who dog-sit or pet-sit for another may get quite acquainted with the pet, but not as much as they would were they the pet’s owner. Jesus says that there lies the difference between the hireling and the owner. The extent to which the good shepherd would zealously guard the sheep is shown by his readiness to have himself torn to pieces by a wolf than let the wolf scatter and make a meal of the sheep. You may wonder what sense there is in dying to save mere animals. As bewildering as that may sound, it’s even more astonishing to think of God dying to save mere mortals. In this, there can be no presumption of equivalence. Hence, St. John, in the second reading, considers it the greatest act of love that we should be called God’s children. Similarly, no event, no idea or name would suffice for our salvation than the name of Jesus. St. Peter declares today: “there is no other name given to the human race by which we are to be saved” (Acts 4:12). What about non-Christians and non-believers?
Leave it to God to work out how, in His inscrutable wisdom, He will unite all the other sheep that do not belong to the sheepfold—the Church, teach them the voice of the Shepherd, and bring them to pasture. Do I think that the various branches of the Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist traditions will someday unite? It’ll be a miracle. How about the Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Tao and the Nones? With God nothing is impossible. We’re content with knowing that the Good Shepherd, the Great Gatherer has space for all and His watchful eyes are upon all His sheep wherever they may currently be.
Fr. Chukwudi Jo Okonkwo