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Witnessing to Jesus’ resurrection by behaving like good shepherds

Date Published: April 26, 2015

Gospel Reflection on the Fourth Sunday of Easter

Gospel Reading: John 10,11-18

We have been reflecting on the resurrection of Jesus these past three weeks. This Sunday seems to take a completely different turn as the Gospel reading proposes a passage that apparently has nothing to do with the Easter season. What does the presentation of the Lord as the Good Shepherd have to do it? What message does the Church intend to communicate by putting a “Good Shepherd Sunday” half-way through the Easter season?

It may sound strange, but it is possible to read some elements of the Paschal mystery in this Sunday’s Gospel passage. By the term “paschal” we refer to the mystery of Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection. The Good Shepherd – Jesus says – is willing to give up his life for his sheep (v.11) and he applies this to himself: “I give up my life for my sheep.” (v.15) Doing so is presented as a free, deliberate act on his part. He was not forced to do it: “I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me; I lay it down of my own free will, and as it is in my power to lay it down, so it is in my power to take it up again.” (vv.17-18)

What motivation could be behind Christ’s free act of self-sacrifice? We need not speculate about it because the Lord himself gives us the answer: God cares for us; He loves us. To help his listeners understand this, Jesus contrasts the image of the Good Shepherd to that of “hired workers,” saying: “Hired workers are not like the shepherd. They don’t own the sheep, and when they see a wolf coming, they run off and leave the sheep. Then the wolf attacks and scatters the flock. Hired workers run away because they don’t care about the sheep.” (vv.12-13)

Who was Jesus referring to when he spoke of “hired workers”? This is subject to various interpretations. In the ecclesial context, it could very well refer to the religious authorities and leaders of his time. Some of them were in charge of the Temple of Jerusalem; others were experts in the Mosaic Law; some were teachers in the synagogue; and so forth. They were expected to guide God’s “chosen people” as to the proper way of entering into a relationship with Yahweh. The “sheep” – that is, the members of God’s people – did not belong to them; they did not own them; the “flock” belonged to God alone and He had only entrusted His flock to them. However, the religious authorities and leaders of Jesus’ days did not always act as responsible keepers of God’s people. They rather acted as if they owned the “flock” and exploited them as they pleased.

In the Old Testament we find very harsh criticisms hurled against the religious leaders for their improper behavior. On the forefront of such criticisms were the prophets. Let us cite just one very explicit text to demonstrate this. Thus we read: “Shepherds ought to feed their flock, yet you have fed on milk, you have dressed yourselves in wool, you have sacrificed the fattest sheep, but failed to feed the flock. You have failed to make weak sheep strong, or to care for the sick ones, or bandage the wounded ones. You have failed to bring back strays or look for the lost. On the contrary, you have ruled them cruelly and violently. For lack of a shepherd they have scattered to become the prey of any wild animal” (Ez 34:3-5).

Christ’s rebuke of the “hired workers” echoed the prophets’ criticism of bad shepherds of the Old Testament. Unfortunately even today there are shepherds who behave in the wrong way, who think primarily of their own interest, advantage, comfort and benefit rather than the wellbeing of people entrusted to their care. Let us remember, however, that not only religious leaders are called to behave like shepherds. As followers of Christ, we are all called to imitate his example and put into practice his teachings. Thus, we are keepers of one another and must be willing, if necessary, to offer our lives for the good of others.

As we celebrate Christ’s Paschal mystery, we are reminded not only of the need to die to our sins in order to participate in His resurrection, but also of how our new life in Him should be concretely expressed through a sincere concern and love that we ought to have for one another. Only by behaving like good shepherds can we truly demonstrate that Jesus, indeed, is alive in us and that we live no longer for ourselves, but for Him who offered himself up for our salvation. Saint Paul would say: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me” (Gal 2:20). (Fr. Czar Emmanuel Alvarez, OSA)

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