Sunday of Week 4 of Easter (Year A)

Commentary on Acts 2:14, 36-41; 1 Peter 2:20-25; John 10:1-10

Today is commonly known as “Good Shepherd Sunday” and also as “Vocations Sunday”, a day when our Church prays especially for new shepherds and pastors to lead the Christian communities.

The image of God as the shepherd of his people has a long tradition in the history of God’s people.  The image of the shepherd is one which appears several times in the New Testament. It is one that would be immediately understood by the people of the time.

In some parts of the world, especially in hotter climates sheep are a rarity. Some have never seen a sheep (except perhaps on television, in a zoo or as lamb on the dinner plate!) and still less shepherds. And the shepherd of the Middle East is somewhat different from, say, sheep ranchers of the Australian outback, rounding up on horseback thousands of animals. There, if one goes missing, it is hardly noticed.

The shepherd of the biblical Middle East had a much more intimate relationship with a much smaller flock. He would bring them out to pasture each day and spend all his time with them. In the evening, he would bring them back to the enclosure where they would be safe from preying animals. He knew each one individually and would notice immediately if even one was missing. Jesus’ parable of the Lost Sheep would have resonated perfectly with his hearers.

Where many of us come from, the shepherd walks behind the sheep, often with a dog to help. In the Middle East, the shepherd walks in front of his sheep and they follow him – and only him because:

They know his voice.

Sheep in Scripture
There are a number of references to sheep and shepherds in the Synoptic gospels. In Mark, for instance, Jesus is deeply moved by compassion because the crowds are “like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:35). By implication, of course, he is their shepherd. In response to criticism by the Pharisees that he was mixing with sinners and the unclean, Jesus told the parable of the shepherd who goes to extraordinary lengths to bring back a lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7). In Matthew, believers are warned about false prophets among them, who are really wolves, but come in sheep’s clothing.  In the final judgement, the good, that is, those who recognised and served Jesus in “the least of my brothers” are good “sheep”, in contrast to the wicked “goats”.

We have also that marvellous passage in Ezekiel where the shepherds of Israel are condemned for their betrayal of their responsibilities, and where God himself promises to take over the gentle care of his flock. There are many parallels in this passage and the Gospel of today. The bad shepherds fatten themselves at the expense of their sheep.  The sheep are left wandering and become a prey to marauding wolves. The Lord of compassion promises to go and gather his sheep and bring them back to good pasture.  Through his compassionate care of them, God’s people

…will know that I, the Lord their God, am with them, and that they, the house of Israel, are my people…And you are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture, and I am your God, says the Lord God. (Ezek 34:30-31)

Two images
In today’s Gospel passage, which consists of the first 10 verses of chapter 10, there seem to be two separate parables. The first is a warning against people who would want to steal the sheep, and the second focuses on the relationship between the sheep and their shepherd.  The central image, too, is not so much that of the shepherd as of the gate.  In fact, later on in the passage, Jesus says,

I AM the Gate.

Here it would seem that Jesus is the Gate of the sheepfold, while the shepherds who come in and out are pastors who are faithful to Jesus. Anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate, for instance, by climbing over the fence or breaking through it, is dangerous and should be avoided. He is “a thief and a brigand” who comes to steal and do harm to the sheep. The genuine shepherd, however, enters by the Gate (Jesus). He is recognised and admitted by the watchman (the leader of the community?) at the gate.

The sheep hear and recognise and follow their shepherd’s voice. In a sheepfold, where there are the sheep of many shepherds, the true shepherd knows which ones belong to him. He calls them out one by one. They, recognising the voice of their own shepherd, follow him.  They will not follow other shepherds, even if called by them. It is a free relationship. The sheep go in and out. They follow, not because they are forced to but by their own choice. The other sheep (belonging to other shepherds) stay behind.

When the shepherd has brought out his sheep to pasture, he goes ahead. And they follow because “they know his voice”. They will not follow a stranger, but run away from him, because they do not recognise his voice.

We are told that the disciples failed to understand the meaning of this parable. This is a reaction which is more common in the Synoptic gospels, especially Mark (see Mark 4:10-12). Parables are meant for “insiders” and not “outsiders”. So Jesus spells out more clearly what he means. He is the Gate of the sheepfold. Those who enter the sheepfold by any other way are not to be trusted, they are “thieves and brigands”. And the sheep will ignore them. 

Anyone who enters through me [the Gate] will be safe.

Fullness of life
Many of the warnings of Jesus here should be read in the context of the story of the blind man in the preceding chapter 9. Here Jesus condemns the blindness of the Pharisees as religious leaders who are totally unfit to bring people to God. They are not good shepherds and they refuse to enter by the Gate.

The passage ends with one of Jesus’ most beautiful statements:

I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.

To follow Jesus is not, as some seem to fear, to live a half life, a life filled with endlessly dire warnings of “Don’t!”. It is to live life, our human life, to the greatest possible fullness.  As one writer puts it, “The Gospel is a statement about how human life is best lived.”  The same writer also says, “Life with God is good for human beings and should be seen to be so.” True evangelisation consists in making this clear by the way we speak and live.  So many people, unfortunately, have the impression that there is something “unnatural” or “super-natural” in being a Christian. Somehow we are not doing a good job.

Called to serve
Today is Vocations Sunday. It is obvious that our Church today is in great need of good shepherds, totally committed to the Way of Jesus. We are asked to pray today especially that our Christian communities will be graced with good shepherds and pastors. It is a pity that we tend to narrow the term “vocation” to those who feel called to the priesthood or what we fall ‘religious’ life, as when we ask, “Do you think you have a ‘vocation’?” Or say, “There are very few ‘vocations’ in our diocese.”

Yet we need to emphasise very strongly that every single baptised person has a ‘vocation’. Everyone is called by God to play a specific role in the Christian community and in the wider community. Unless we Christians see that ‘vocation’ is something that we are all called to, it is not likely that there will be enough people to meet the service needs of our Christian communities. Our Christian communities can only grow and thrive when every member makes a contribution to the well-being of the whole.

Unfortunately, a large number, it seems, decide first on their ‘career’ and only then ask, “How can I be a good Catholic?” (that is, if they actually do ask the question). It is absolutely basic for us to ask ourselves at all times, “What does God want me to be? What are my particular gifts? How can I offer these gifts in service to the wider community and to my own Christian community?”

If I live my life as a morally good person, “keeping the Commandments” and saying my prayers and “fulfilling my religious obligations”, but do not in fact play an active and constructive part in my community, I am not really a Christian in the proper sense. Yet, it seems that that is the way many people live their Catholic lives.

Unless we Christians see that ‘vocation’ as something that we are all called to respond to, it is not likely that there will be enough people to respond to the service needs of our Christian communities and, by extension, the needs of the wider community. There is still among many, one fears, what can be called a ‘supermarket mentality’ where our Christian practice is concerned. The Church is there to provide me with ‘spiritual’ or ‘religious’ ‘goods’ as I need them. But there is a danger that, like supermarkets in some old communist countries, there may soon be no ‘goods’ available and, worse, no one to distribute them!

Our Christian communities can only grow and thrive when every member makes his or her contribution to the well-being of the whole. When all are giving, all will be receiving in abundance, the abundance that Jesus speaks about in today’s Gospel.

Today we are asked to “pray” for vocations. There is a danger that, although many will fervently do so, they are praying for other people’s vocations and not their own. To say this prayer with sincerity involves my reflecting on how God is asking me to make a meaningful contribution of myself (not just money) to the building up of our community, our parish.

In fact, one has to be deeply impressed by the number of people who do make a substantial contribution one way or the other to the running of our church communities. Nevertheless, today, Vocations Sunday, challenges each one of us to reflect on how we personally are responding to the call that Jesus is making to each of us right now. As a group or community, we respond to that call by seeing that all that is needed for the maintenance and growth of our community is being generously provided.

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