Readings: Acts 4:8-12; 1 Jn 3:1-2; Jn 10:11-18
The Folly of the Love of the Shepherd (Jn 10:11-18)
The Maasai people of East Africa are a very interesting people. Their photogenic, elegant figures are used to advertise tourism in East Africa. But traditionally they were known for raiding the neighboring tribes, and taking possession of their cattle. At least, so goes the legend! From these accounts one might think that the Maasai are a very violent people. There is a mythical background, however, to why the Maasai raid the other tribes that have cows. It is said that, in the beginning when God created the world… He created all the animals, and especially the cows. Then He also created human beings – the Maasai, of course. Then God entrusted the Maasai with all the cows in the world. Therefore all the cows in the world simply belong to the Maasai. And it is their prerogative to look after them. No other tribe can relieve the Masai of this God-given responsibility!
Sounds rather funny! But this is the folly of pastoralists all over the world. It is a ‘stupidity’ that flows from the love of pastoralists for their fold. They are willing to lay down their lives for their sheep.
Today, the 4th Sunday of Easter is celebrated as the Good Shepherd Sunday. We think of the ‘pastoral’ love of God, as we also pray for vocations to priesthood; priests are the ‘pastors’ of the church. Each year, for the gospel reading, we hear one part of John 10. This year, being Year B, we listen to the second part of that chapter. Today, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (Jn 10:11). His statement has two parts, and these parts form the structure of my reflection today.
1. I am the Good Shepherd
Jesus was not the first to use the image of the shepherd. Even in the civil society the concept of the shepherd was used among kings and rulers, prior to the time of Jesus. In the statues and images of ancient Egyptian pharaohs, they are often depicted holding a shepherd’s staff. We could even say that the concept of a leader being a shepherd is as old as the concept of monarchy itself.
In the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), the image of the shepherd is used to refer to the leaders of the people of Israel. God calls Moses not only when he is tending the flock of his father-in-law (Ex 3:1), but Moses is given a shepherd’s staff (Ex 4:2) that he was already holding, now as a symbol of leadership, authority and the power of God.
Again, David was not just a shepherd boy, but when the people of all the tribes of Israel went to David at Hebron to anoint him as their king, they said, “Yahweh promised, “You are to shepherd my people Israel and be leader of Israel” (2 Sam 5:1-3).
We have the prophets again and again referring to the leaders of Israel as shepherds; they also refer to God as the true shepherd of the people.
• Prophet Isaiah declares, “Behold, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms, he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young” (Is 40:10-11).
• And in Jeremiah, “Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who care for my people: “You have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. … I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, says the Lord” (Jer 23: 2-4).
• Finally, in Ezekiel, the Lord God says, “I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd” (Ezek 34: 23).
So the image of the shepherd has been there in the long tradition of Israel. And Jesus just takes on this image. But what makes Jesus’ image of the shepherd unique and special is what we read in John 10. As I see, there are two themes that come out very powerfully in John 10. These themes are repeated over and over again in the chapter. In these themes we see a new and powerful image of the God of Christianity: one, “I know my own and my own know me” (Jn 10:14); and two, “The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep” (Jn 10:11,15,17,18). I shall pick up the second theme for the rest of my reflection.
2. The Shepherd lays down his life for the sake of the sheep.
John 10 overflows with these phrases: I lay down my life for my sheep… I lay it down of my own free will… I have power to lay it down. In the text that we heard read this morning, this phrase was repeated at least 4 times. Very telling, isn’t it? Shepherd is ready to lay down his life for his sheep. What a folly! God is ready to lay down his life for the sake of mere humans like us!
There was a scripture professor of mine who was fond of using a very interesting image to bring out this absurdity of the love of God for us – much like the folly of the Shepherd. Imagine that someone of you loves cockroaches, those wretched creatures that are a nuisance in the kitchen. You really pity how wretched they are and you want to help them out. And let’s say, you have the power to become a cockroach. So you become a cockroach and you live among them. You eat like them, you talk like them, you walk like them… and you start guiding them. You start showing them how they can live their lives fully. But alas, one day these cockroaches get tired of you, they turn against you, and they kill you!
Why, this is exactly what happened to God in the person of Jesus: He became one of us, and he was killed! So when Jesus tells us, I am ready to lay down my life for the sheep. Isn’t it absurd? And what else, he really did it. Isn’t it so consoling to know that God loves us so passionately?
May the experience of the love of the God become a reality for us, especially during this Eastertide!
After-thought Spiritual Reflection
Once during supper at a family, while we were all seated at table, their son got up and went to the other end of the hall to answer his mobile. What surprised me was how he heard the mobile ring, while it was on silent mode. He just answered me, I can feel and know it is ringing. All I could say to myself was that, because he was attuned to the mobile. Not just ears but his heart was close to his mobile.
Today we are called to ask this question, do we recognize the voice and love of our dear shepherd?
The gospel of today gives us all that Jesus, our good shepherd does for his sheep. Our shepherd calls us, we are called to respond:
1. Listen to the voice of the shepherd: this can be done
a. Through Sacred Scripture
b. Through our Conscience
Thus we will be able to respond accordingly with our lives
2. Our good shepherd is one who always provides:
a. Good pastures
These are provided so as to give and promote life. Not to snatch and kill. Above all to keep them safe and together.
3. Jesus the good shepherd goes to the extreme to love his sheep:
a. By laying down His life
b. He knows each sheep
c. Every ready to bring in other sheep to good pastures.
Thus He is always on the look out of those who are going astray and at the same time loving looking after the sheep He has.
4. Jesus the shepherd calls us to new life and to promote new life too:
a. By listening to HIS VOICE
b. Knowing that in Jesus we have true and everlasting life that none can destroy.
Thus when we listen to HIS VOICE and be promoters of life, we too become good shepherd to each other.
As the shepherd calls his own sheep by name and into His fold, we need to ask a question. To what is God calling me? Where is Jesus leading me?
The sheep follow him, because they recognize his voice. How do I recognize Jesus voice in my daily life?
Fr. Franco Pereira, S.D.B.