For those of us following the western liturgical calendar, today marks the fourth Sunday of Easter. This day is commonly referred to as “Good Shepherd” Sunday because the Gospel reading comes from the tenth chapter of John, where Jesus declares himself both the gate and the shepherd, caring for and protecting his sheep from the multitude of evils, dangers, strife, and temptations present in the world.
Until a few years ago, I never gave much thought to the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. This was not based in any conscious aversion to the image, although I must admit, if given the option on any sort of BuzzFeed quiz or equivalent, I would certainly not claim “sheep” as my spirit animal. But in recent years, Jesus as the Good Shepherd has been a constant source of rich prayer for me. I remember my first prayer encounter with John 10. It was during the spring of 2011 and I was participating in the nine-month long Spiritual Exercises in Everyday Life, also called the 19th Annotation. For those of you unfamiliar with this retreat, it is a way of experiencing the St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises over a longer period than the traditional thirty-day retreat time. During one of my daily prayer sessions, the meditation was on Jesus the Good Shepherd. I remember reading those words “I came so they might have life and have it more abundantly. I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.” I imagined the wolves—the ones that a “hired man” would run away from—and I imagined Jesus the Good Shepherd staying and fending off the threatening beasts. I vividly remember the fierceness of this guy. My image of the good shepherd was far from the smiling, gentle, holding-the-lamb shepherd Jesus. This good shepherd was not going to let the wolves—the fears, the anxieties, the crushing self-doubt—get me. This was a fierce love, an intimacy and presence I had not really experienced in prayer before. Ever since then, the shepherd has been a centering image in my prayer life. It is the image I pray with when I need stillness and comfort and gentle reassurance. It is also the image I pray with when I feel lost or confused, in need of healing of some kind. And it is most certainly the image I pray with when I feel anxious, timid, scared, or self-loathing.
As with all images of prayer, my image of the good shepherd needed to expand and change so that it did not become static, stagnant, self-serving–even potentially idolatrous. As helpful and intense as this initial experience with Jesus the Good Shepherd was, I could not stay in that pasture, safe and protected. Abundant life, the abundant life God dreams for us, does not consist of cowering in the corner of green meadows. Life with this Good Shepherd compels us to more than resting; it calls us to move out into the world and to become good shepherds ourselves. Later in the gospel of John, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Jesus tells Peter to “Feed my lambs; tend my sheep; feed my sheep.” The apostles, as we see in the readings from Acts, are commissioned to be shepherds. Pope Francis’ now famous statement to priests is really a reminder to all of the faithful: we must smell like the sheep. In other words, we must be in the midst of the terror, the pain, the suffering of others, knowing and loving as intimately as we can. In a recent letter to the theological faculty at the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina, Francis told theologians that they too must “smell like sheep.” He writes, “Even good theologians, like good shepherds, have the odour of the people and of the street and, by their reflection, pour oil and wine onto the wounds of [hu]mankind.”
It is so hard to shake the problematic ecclesiastical male authority and power that has traditionally been associated with shepherd as an image for Christian discipleship that I find self-identifying as shepherd almost as challenging as identifying myself as a sheep. But further exploration of the biblical descriptions of God as shepherd not to mention the various accounts of actual shepherds throughout the biblical narrative provides a compelling account of shepherds and discipleship. Ezekiel 34: 11-16 tells us what the shepherd does: tends, looks after, rescues, leads, pastures, seeks the lost, provides nourishing food, water, and rest, binds up the injured, and heals the sick. In other words, the tasks of the shepherd align with the corporal acts of mercy. And shepherds themselves hardly identify with figures of worldly power. Shepherds live on the margins. So single-minded to the task at hand and so attentive to the needs of their flock, they are often regarded as somewhat odd. Shepherds live their lives attune to nature, able to read the slightest change in weather, know where the green pastures are, and can sense the approach of predators. Shepherds are wisdom figures, dreamers, poets, contemplatives, mystics. Shepherds are also healers, warriors, prophets. To live as shepherds live means to live simply, humbly, and fearlessly committed to the needs of others. And this is at the heart of what it means to be disciples of the Good Shepherd.
I wrote this post just a few hours before I heard about the devastating earthquake in Nepal. I must confess, I nearly threw it out. It is nearly impossible reconcile this and so many other senseless tragedies with Jesus’ promise of abundant life and I myself will not attempt to do it here. But, in the face of such evil and suffering and human pain, I don’t know what else we can do but follow the way of so many countless saints—many present in Nepal right now–who, like attentive, single-minded shepherds, bind up wounds and heal the sick and bury the dead and who, like faithful sheep, accept the gentle embrace and constant, fierce protection of the loving shepherd.
God calls us to life and life abundant. Abundant life must consist of living in mutual love, caring for, protecting one another and willingly accepting care and love in return. For this he came and in this we believe. We are the flock called to follow and in doing so, we become Good shepherds ourselves.