4th Sunday of Easter Year A

     When you think of God, what image pops into your head? Some of you may think of a judge wearing a long black robe, maybe others of you imagine Him as a grandpa sitting on a rocking chair, and perhaps others of you imagine a great kingly ruler. Certainly, if I asked each of you what your image of God is, I would get many different answers. While those answers might be interesting, might I propose that our readings today invite us to change that image to the picture of a shepherd?

     This image of God as a shepherd is one of the most ancient images of God we have. In the Old Testament, God calls Himself the Good Shepherd, exclaiming, “I myself will pasture my sheep; I myself will give them rest.”[1] Our Jewish ancestors found comfort in reciting the psalm, “the Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I will want,”[2] just as we did today in our responsorial psalm. You see, our Jewish ancestors and the early Christians found great comfort in this image of God as the Good Shepherd, because they understood the rapport that exists between a shepherd and his sheep.

     In biblical times, the shepherd lived as a nomad, sleeping with his sheep and frequently traveling with them from region to region as the seasons changed. It was the shepherd who cared for the sheep by leading them to fresh pastures and water, finding shelter during inclement weather and risking his life to save his sheep from bandits or beasts seeking to cause them harm. The shepherd kept constant watch over his sheep. At night or during other moments of danger, the shepherd would find a cave or a makeshift pen to protect the sheep and then would sleep across the entrance, ensuring that any sheep wanting to go astray or any person or beast wanting to harm the sheep would have to go through him. Just like Jesus, the shepherd literally laid down his life to save his sheep. This is why Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel that He is the gate for the sheep. By dying and rising, Jesus has gathered us into His fold, the Church. Since Jesus is the gatekeeper, we can be confident that He will keep us from all harm. No matter what the world throws at us, we can be confident and secure as long as we remain in the fold of the Church, because ultimately nothing can harm us, unless we choose to trample over Jesus, the gatekeeper, and leave the Church behind.

     While sheep are simple animals, they have great confidence in the shepherd and depend on Him for everything. They keep their ears tuned to His voice and when they hear it they obey his command because without him, the sheep would not survive. Hearing the voice of the shepherd and following his command is the only way for the sheep to survive. The beautiful image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd gives us a glimpse into who God truly is and should inspire us to tune our ear to hear His voice and follow Him. After all, the image of the Good Shepherd reminds us that without God we cannot survive. For God is not some distant judge in the sky; no He knows our innermost selves and loves us with a personal love that treats us as though we are the only ones needing His attention. The Good Shepherd loves His sheep so much that He laid down His life for us. He literally laid down as our gatekeeper to gather us into His fold and to help keep us there.

     Living in the technological world of the 21st century, it can be easy for us to think that we are far advanced from the days of sheep and shepherds, but if we set the technology aside for a moment, I dare say we will have to admit that we are more like sheep then we realize. This COVID-19 pandemic has shown us just how reliant we are. For the past 40+ days, we have repeatedly been told we need to stay home to help prevent the spread of the virus. Even with the advanced medicine of the 21st century and the advanced education of the so-called experts, the virus can only be mitigated, we are told, if we hear and head the warnings to social distance. If this is true for something as simple as a virus, must it also be true for our faith and for navigating our way through this life? Friends, while we may not always appreciate the image of God as the Good Shepherd, I think if we are honest, we have to admit it applies to every generation. Does not every generation, not matter how independent or advanced they think they are, need divine assistance to enter their heavenly reward? Is it not true that “no one is strong enough to travel the entire path of salvation unaided? All have sinned, all need the Lord’s mercy, the love of the crucified one.”[3]

     God is not an evil judge sitting on a judgement bench, nor is He a grandfather sitting in His rocking chair. No, He is who He says He is, the Good Shepherd. He has laid down His life to bring us into the fold and continuously offers His life to keep us in the fold. The question for us is if we will hear His voice, heed His commands, and follow Him or will we trample over the Good Shepherd who lays at the entrance and wander off on our own. To hear the Good Shepherd, we must spend sometime everyday sitting in prayerful silence, learning to recognize His voice. When is the last time you sat quietly, perhaps with your bible, and patiently listen to God speak to you? So often people come to me in times of trouble asking how to determine what God is saying to them. Well if you haven’t spent time listening to Him daily you will not be tuned to hear His voice when you get lost. Look, if we want to be led to the green pastures of eternal life we need the humility to acknowledge that we are the sheep and not the shepherd. We must follow the teachings of the Church and must spend time everyday sitting in prayerful silence, learning to recognize the voice of Jesus the Good Shepherd, and when we hear Him, we must joyfully and confidently follow that voice. For He is the Good Shepherd and we are His sheep. Our salvation consists in nothing more than being obedient sheep, following wherever the Good Shepherd leads us.

[1] EZ 34:15

[2] Psalm 23

[3] Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth Part II. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006. Pgs 151 – 152.

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