There was a time when Australia was said to ride on the sheep’s back. The production and sale of wool was an immensely important part of our economy. Most Australians would occasionally have had some contact with sheep. Of course we didn’t call their owners ‘shepherds’: they were graziers. In the early years of settlement, there were shepherds in Australia, but these would be employees of the squatters. In the ancient world there were plenty of owner-shepherds. The kind of care they exercised over their flocks provided a good model of the care a wise ruler gave his people.
Consequently there is plenty of shepherd imagery in the Bible. As far as the gospels are concerned, we think of the Good Shepherd who, if one sheep in a hundred strays, will leave the 99 unattended and go looking for the stray. But today’s gospel, taken from St John, goes further. Jesus says: I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd is one who lays down his life for his sheep. We shall see presently that that is a development of received shepherd imagery.
Let me explain. The prophet Ezekiel wrote at about the time of the destruction of Jerusalem and the captivity in Babylon of most of the Jewish leaders – early in the 6th century BC. Jewish thinkers wondered why God had allowed these terrible things to happen to them. The common conclusion was that they had not honoured their part of the alliance which God had made with their ancestors. The exile and all that went with it was a punishment for their infidelity.
In his 34th chapter, Ezekiel records a message of comfort for the people and of condemnation for their leaders who were supposed to be their shepherds: Shepherds, the Lord God says this: Trouble for the shepherds of Israel who feed themselves! Shepherds ought to feed their flock, yet you fed on milk, you have dressed yourselves in wool, you have sacrificed the fattest sheep [and eaten most of the meat themselves] but failed to feed the flock … You have failed to bring back strays or look for the lost. On the contrary you have ruled them cruelly and violently … In view of all this, shepherds, hear the word of God … I am going to call the shepherds to account. I am going to take my flock from them … I am going to look after my flock myself. God spells out in some detail the measures he will take to care for ‘his flock’ i.e, Israel his Chosen People, and concludes: I shall be a true shepherd to them.
Then there is this promise: I mean to raise up one shepherd, my servant David, and to put him in charge of them and he will pasture them; he will pasture them and be their shepherd. I said just now that Ezekiel wrote around the beginning of the 6th century BC. King David reigned about 1000 BC. So the promise must refer to a descendant and possibly heir of David: I suggest it is a prophecy concerning Jesus the Christ.
Returning now to today’s gospel, the late, great American scholar, Raymond E. Brown, wrote that the phrase I am the good shepherd would translate more accurately as I am the model shepherd. In this sense, a model is an ideal, an example and inspiration for all who come after him. So in this passage Jesus contrasts himself with the hired hand who takes to his heels as soon as he sees a wolf coming … because he is only a hired man and has no concern for the sheep. By contrast, Jesus can say: I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. If any of you have not had much to do with sheep I can assure you that individual sheep can recognize their master, and an observant shepherd can distinguish between individual members of his flock.
The next verse is always trotted out during the week of prayer for Christian unity: There are other sheep I have that are not of this fold, and these I have to lead as well. They too will listen to my voice, and there will be only one flock and one shepherd. I think we can say that for many years we Catholics took those words to mean that it was God’s will that everybody should become Catholic. That’s not what the gospel says. Indeed, since Vatican II we have recognized that God works through many other Christian churches and even in some way through non-Christian religions. It is not for us to define the outer limits of Christ’s flock. When Jesus says: The Father loves me, because 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; and this is the power I have been given by my Father, Jesus shows that already he has a fair idea of what lies ahead of him. He is ready to make a sacrifice never expected of other shepherds.
Let me point out that these lines occur in the 10th chapter of St John’s gospel – long before Jesus enters upon his Passion. He had come into the world to repair the alliance which human beings had so often flouted. He came in perfect obedience to his Father’s will and, in himself becoming man, was to show that at least one human being could respect the terms of the alliance. He was in control of the situation.
We also read just now a passage from the first letter of St John. Think of the love that the Father has lavished on us – he writes – by letting us be called God’s children; and that is what we are. In the ancient world, adoption conferred full rights. When a testator died there was no distinction between the biological children and the adopted children of the deceased. All were equal before the law. So the author is asserting boldly that we shall enjoy the same rights as the only begotten Son of God. It’s just that we don’t know what they are. My dear people, we are already the children of God but what we are to be in the future has not yet been revealed; all we know is, that when it is revealed we shall be like him because we shall see him as he really is.
Not for the first time, we find Scripture pointing out the responsibilities of the leaders of the community, and this is something which is always relevant. When you think about it, nearly every adult has some of the responsibilities of a shepherd. Take first of all parents. Obviously their first duty is to feed and clothe and nurture and educate their children. We notice a good deal of eagerness to enrol Catholic children in Church schools. We also notice a great deal of reticence about bringing those same children to Mass on Sundays. Yet the parents – not the school – are supposed to be the first teachers of the faith to their children. Godparents are supposed to help the parents teach the faith to the children. Their first duty is not to supply birthday presents – there is so much more to it than that. And why do Catholic parents so often choose a non-Catholic godparent? At present in secular Australia, just as formerly in communist Eastern Europe, much of the education in the faith is left to grandparents.
Our society is fascinated by celebrities, and especially by sporting heroes and pop stars. How many of them would you point out to your children as role-models?
We clergy also have shepherding tasks and readings such as we have heard today give us cause to examine our own performance. To neglect the duties of one’s state in life is a grave matter. Let us pray for one another. (Quentin.Howard)