Commentary by Fr Donagh O’Shea OP, www.goodnews.ie
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away – and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”
Shepherds did not have sheepdogs in Jesus’ time. They didn’t need them, because sheep would follow their shepherd of their own free will. Jesus called himself a shepherd: the People of God are not to be driven by fear but led freely by love. In the early centuries the figure of Jesus as a shepherd was a favourite one, and the earliest representation of him (some art historians claim) shows him as the good shepherd.
Shepherds were humble folk. If Jesus had been born in the inn at Bethlehem rather than in the stable, the shepherds would not have been allowed in to visit him; this was the first signal of his accessibility. St Thomas Aquinas saw the same wisdom in the incarnation itself: the Word became flesh, he said, so that God would be accessible to us in Jesus.
The good shepherd, Jesus said, “lays down his life for his sheep.” Who were the bad shepherds, then? Not the literal shepherds, the simple men on the hillside looking after their sheep. Not these, but the ‘shepherds of the people’, the leaders. In the Old Testament the term was applied to kings, royal officers, the elders, all who have any kind of authority. In nearly all Scriptural passages such ‘shepherds’ were being faulted for neglecting their responsibilities to the ‘flock’, the people. In Ezekiel 34 for example they are being severely reprimanded for neglecting “the weak, the sick the wounded, the strayed, the lost,” for fattening themselves instead of tending to the needs of the flock. It is in contrast to these and to the religious authorities that Jesus calls himself the good shepherd. On every page of the gospel we find him seeking out these marginalised people: public sinners, lepers, Samaritans, the sick, the tormented…. He stood up to the authorities for their sake, he defied the systems that made them outcasts, he laid down his life rather than turn his back on them and kow-tow to the authorities.
The imagery of shepherding has become so much part of the Christian mind that it becomes almost invisible. The words ‘pastor’ and ‘pastoral’ come from the Latin for shepherd. A bishop’s crozier is really a sort of stylish shepherd’s stick. Those ancient shepherds carried a stick not to beat or prod their sheep but to beat off any wild animals that threatened the sheep.
In today’s reading, mention of the shepherd’s death seems very sudden and unexpected, but in its own setting perhaps it was less so. This fidelity of the shepherd to his flock continues even into modern times. W.M. Thomson, describing his travels in the Holy Land, wrote, “A poor faithful fellow last Spring, between Tiberias and Tabor, instead of fleeing, actually fought three Bedouin robbers until he was hacked to pieces with their khanjars, and died among the sheep he was defending.”
Yes, your bishop and your pastor are expected to die if necessary in your defence. Your parish priest too. In fact all Christians are challenged to lay down their lives if necessary for others. The cross of Christ is not an ornament to hang on the wall but a pattern of Christian life.