Today is Good Shepherd Sunday. This pastoral image of sheep and shepherd seems a bit foreign in downtown Toronto where we are surrounded by high-rise buildings and the closest we get to animal-human relationships are the many dogs we see trotting alongside their owners, obviously enjoying their outdoor walks. I have to admit that I enjoy watching the interaction between these pets and their owners and the obvious bond between them.
The Gospel today speaks of the bond between sheep and shepherd in terms of the deep knowledge the shepherd has of his sheep and the deep recognition that the sheep have of the shepherd. It was the practice of the time for several flocks of sheep to spend the night together in the sheepfold to protect them from wolves and other predators. When it was time for them to go out to the pasture to graze, the shepherd would call to his flock, which upon hearing his voice, would follow only that shepherd and none other because they do not recognize the voice of strangers.
A lot of sheep graze their way through the scriptures. For the most part, they are a sorry lot, sheep not being known for their intelligence. They are threatened by wolves, fall into pits (Matt 12:11), and get lost (Matt 10:6). We, to whom these scriptures are addressed, are meant to identify with the sheep of the narrative. As the chorus of Handel’s The Messiah sings, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all.”
The Twelve who follow Jesus are sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matt 10:6), yet the Twelve themselves are described, not as shepherds, but as sheep. In the Mount of Olives, Jesus said to the Twelve, citing the prophet Zechariah, “You will all become deserters; for it is written ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered’” (Mk14:27). Only after the Resurrection does Peter take on the role of shepherd when Jesus instructs him “feed my sheep” (Jn 21:17).
The “I am” sayings in the Gospel of John reveal who Jesus is. In today’s reading, however, the first “I am” statement is not an identification of Jesus as the shepherd, which will be the second “I am” statement, occurring in v.11, the beginning of Monday’s Gospel, but instead his identification as the gate (v. 7), the way into the sheepfold, a precursor to a later “I am” statement, “I am the way, the truth and the light” (Jn 14:6).
The Gospel today speaks of the bond between sheep and shepherd. The bond between shepherd and sheep is so intense that the shepherd identifies with the sheep so that Jesus becomes one of the sheep, “the lamb of God”, who by his death takes away the sins of the world and thereby becomes the “gate” to eternal life. The image of Jesus as the shepherd who
dies for the sheep belongs to the early Christian passion tradition even though Jesus probably never worked as a shepherd.
The biblical metaphors are fluid and we are called upon to play with them imaginatively as we enter into the world of the biblical text. Jesus is gate and shepherd and lamb of God. The shepherd becomes the lamb who is sacrificed, and the sheep becomes the shepherd as the disciples take up and continue the mission of the Good Shepherd. In his Apostolic Exhortation The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis extends the metaphor of sheep and shepherd in this Gospel not only to pastors, ordained priests who shepherd a parish community, but to the very community itself which becomes a shepherd. He describes the bond between shepherd and sheep saying, “An evangelizing community gets involved by word and deed in people’s daily lives; it bridges distances, it is willing to abase itself if necessary, and it embraces human life, touching the suffering flesh of Christ in others. Evangelizers thus take on the ‘smell of the sheep’” and the sheep are willing to hear their voice” (EG 24).
Chapter 7 of the book of Revelation explicitly identifies the image of shepherd and lamb in its description of a great multitude wearing white robes who cry out “Salvation comes from our God….and from the Lamb”(7:10). The Lamb, in the center of the throne, “will shepherd them and lead them to springs of life-giving water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (7:17). This echoes the promise of today’s Gospel where Christ the Good Shepherd says, “I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.”
These days, when the news begins each day with a tally of how many people have contracted the COVID virus and how many have died, when we are confined at home practicing social distancing, when the economy has contracted with the shuttering of businesses, we find ourselves longing for abundant life even as the signs of new springtime life within parks and green spaces are closed to protect us from each other. Today, as we commemorate Good Shepherd Sunday, in weariness of six weeks of isolation, in mourning for those who have died, in hopes for a heathier and more prosperous future, in longing for a restoration of community life, let us take on the “smell of the sheep” in our suffering sisters and brothers as we cling to Christ the Good Shepherd in faith, hope, and love, believing in the promise of more abundant life. Psalm 23, the responsorial psalm for today, expresses this faith and this conviction:
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall
He makes me lie down in green
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil’
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy
shall follow me
all the days of my life.
and I shall dwell in the house of
my whole life long.