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  • Writer's pictureFr. Scott Haynes

Jesus, Our Good Shepherd

Fr. Scott Haynes


A Meditation for Good Shepherd Sunday



John 10: 11-16.


At that time Jesus said to the Pharisees: I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd giveth His life for His sheep. But the hireling, and he that is not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming and leaveth the sheep and flieth: and the wolf catcheth and scattereth the sheep: and the hireling flieth, because he is a hireling, and he hath no care for the sheep. I am the Good Shepherd: and I know Mine, and Mine know Me, as the Father knoweth Me, and I know the Father: and I lay down My life for My sheep. And other sheep I have that are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear My voice, and there shall be one fold and one shepherd. [1]


Shepherds—Good and Bad

Once upon a time, a priest took a tour of the Holy Land. Several of his parishioners came along and were excited to walk the places in which Christ and His disciples once walked the earth. Getting ready for the trip, the priest had classes for them to prepare them for what they would see and to help them get the most out of the trip. They studied about the Jewish customs, Temple traditions, and they even studied the lives of shepherds to prepare for their visit to Bethlehem. They read the Gospels and pondered images of shepherds leading their flocks in verdant pastures.

As they imagined the shepherd boy David filling the pastures of the Holy Land with sweet music, they thought of the sheep who know the voice of their shepherd and who follow his voice. Once they arrived in the Holy Land there was a day scheduled for a visit to Bethlehem. They read from St. Luke’s Gospel the Nativity story [2] and heard anew the story of the shepherds who came to adore the Christ Child. They read again the familiar Psalm (“The Lord is my shepherd”) [3] with renewed meaning.


At last, as they came upon the little town of Bethlehem, they finally caught sight of a herd of sheep there in the countryside, and they beheld the most amazing sight. The shepherd was not leading the sheep. No! He was chasing after them. What was wrong with this scene? The priest, surprised by this, quickly ran over and stopped the shepherd, asking:

“Why are you chasing the sheep? We thought you would be leading the sheep.”

The man replied,

“You are correct, the shepherd does lead his sheep. But I’m not the shepherd. I’m the butcher!”


Governing as a Good Shepherd


Good shepherds and bad shepherds! That is the topic of our meditation today on this Good Shepherd Sunday, as we see how Christ governs His flock, the Church. In the scriptures of the Old Testament, the image of the shepherd is a symbol of divine government, and of human government, too, as an imitation of the divine. Thus, God is addressed as shepherd:

“Hear, O thou Shepherd of Israel, thou that leadest Joseph like a sheep.” [4]

In God’s Providence, David, the shepherd boy, divinely anointed, becomes the shepherd King of Israel. When Isaiah prophesies the coming deliverer, he, too, speaks of a shepherd:

“He shall lead his flock like a shepherd, and gather the lambs unto his bosom.” [5]

And when Jesus, offspring of the House of David, tells us, “I am the Good Shepherd,” [6] the Jewish audience would certainly have all this background in mind. Those who listened to Christ’s preaching knew that He unmistakably took for Himself one of God’s titles in the Old Testament—that of the Divine Shepherd of Israel.



In Jesus’ day, the judgment of Ezekiel 34 was read aloud in synagogues during the Hanukkah (Feast of Dedication) [7] season as a reminder of the wicked Israelite leaders who permitted false gods, idols, and foreign kings to lead God’s people away from trusting in Him. Jesus likely heard Ezekiel 34 read during Hanukkah (Feast of Dedication). It was during this feast that He announced,

“I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd gives His life for the sheep.” [8]

He was the ruler they had been waiting for. He was the promised One who would live by the true nature of God’s Law, embodying true justice and righteousness, as promised by the prophets. [9]


Unlike many of Israel’s past shepherds, Jesus was selfless and uninterested in personal gain. Rather, He came to be the sacrificial Shepherd who would give His life for His people. The hungry, thirsty, sick, and poor all flocked to the One who sincerely cared for their physical and spiritual welfare. Our Lord’s response toward those who were suffering reflected the pure compassion of the Father poured out on His people.


A Shepherd as a Symbol of Government


In the ancient world, the image of the shepherd was a natural symbol of government. Not only in ancient Israel, but also in ancient Greece, it served this purpose. From the time of Homer [10] on, the Greeks spoke of kingship in terms of shepherding—a human office, no doubt, but also a reflection or imitation of the divine government of the universe. The image of the shepherd is a natural and universal symbol of divine and human government. But there is a certain difficulty about the symbol. In the first book of Plato’s [11] dialogue called the Republic, [12] there is a conversation, where Socrates is engaged in an argument with a Sophist [13] called Thrasymachus. [14] They are discussing the subject of justice. At this particular point in the argument, they are discussing the art of government, and the idea of the shepherd is introduced. Thrasymachus accuses Socrates of naive foolishness.


Socrates in Raphael’s “The School of Athens with Hermocrates, Critias, and Timaeus”


The False Shepherd Flieth



Thrasymachus says,

“You imagine that a shepherd studies the interests of his flocks, tending them and fattening them up with some other end in view than his master’s profit or his own; and so you don’t see that, in politics, the genuine ruler regards his subjects exactly like sheep, and thinks of nothing else, night and day, but the good he can get out of them for himself.”

The gist of Socrates’ reply is that although there may indeed be false shepherds, it is the sole concern of the shepherd’s art, as such, to do the best for the charges put under its care. Its own best interest is sufficiently provided for, so long as it does not fall short of all that shepherding should imply. On that principle, it follows, he says, that any kind of authority must, in its character of authority, consider solely what is best for those under its care.


Jesus, in today’s Gospel lesson, draws a distinction between the good shepherd, who cares for the sheep, and the hireling, who is in the business for what he can get out of it for himself. “I am the good shepherd,” [15] says Christ. Jesus’ authority as shepherd, as governor of our lives, is established in his act of all-perfect sacrifice: [16]

“I lay down my life for the sheep.” [17]

Christ Guides His Sheep to Verdant Pasture


Christ’s shepherding is good indeed. His Resurrection—our Easter joy—is our foretaste of the green pastures and still waters of eternal life.

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff comfort me.” [18]


The idea of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is certainly a very appealing and attractive image. It has inspired centuries of Christian devotion, and I suppose there is no passage in the whole of Sacred Scripture better-known or more loved than that Psalm of divine shepherding—“The Lord is my shepherd.”



The image of Christ as our Good Shepherd is fundamentally an image of the divine governing of the universe, the good shepherding of all things by God’s wisdom and power. Even in death, we, the sheep of His flock, turn to Christ, our Good Shepherd, to lead us safely home.


In the earliest expressions of Christian art, the paintings which adorn the walls of the catacombs— those narrow labyrinthine tunnels which served as burial places in the early Christian centuries—a favorite theme is Jesus as the Good Shepherd. It is natural and obvious enough, of course, that the Risen Lord should be represented as shepherd of the dead. Christ is the shepherd and guardian of their souls. He alone can lead them the “verdant pastures” [19] of the heavenly kingdom, where we will “dwell in the house of the Lord forever” [20]


Christ as Good Shepherd: Catacomb of Callistus in Rome, 3rd century


One Flock and One Shepherd


Jesus is “the power of God and the wisdom of God.” [21] He is governor of all that is, shepherding all things to their appointed end. Therefore, the image of the good shepherd is fundamentally an image of divine government, an image of the universal providence of God in Christ. As the Son of God, His mission from the Father is to bring salvation to all men. Christ tells us,

“Other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they should hear my voice; and there should be one flock, and one shepherd.” [22]

As He looks upon all mankind, He has come to be Savior of all the nations. Jesus’ Blood is poured out on Calvary for Jew and Gentile alike.As the King of Creation, Christ’s shepherding includes the whole creation. As St. Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans,

“the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God . . . because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay, and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God.” [23]

Hireling Shepherds


The conversation between Socrates and Thrasymachus reveals that hirelings (i.e., false shepherds) are always looking for what they can get out of their flock. They fatten their flocks before the slaughter. In the Gospel, Christ warned us about hirelings too. Over the course of the many centuries of the Church, we see there have been false shepherds (hirelings) who have fleeced their flocks. Yet, we must not permit ourselves to become cynical and doubtful about the divine governance of things.


Peter denies Christ the third time as the cock crows.


There were bad shepherds in the first batch of the Twelve Apostles. Peter denied Christ three times on the night of the Last Supper, while Judas Iscariot sold Christ for thirty pieces of silver. As Christ was crucified, the Apostles all ran away and hid out of fear, save one, John, who only remained at the foot of the Cross only by clinging to the Virgin Mother.Have no doubt, God governs all things for the best. He is the Good Shepherd. The shepherds of His Church will be strong so long as they strive to imitate the Good Shepherd, who is Christ our Lord. We ought to pray for them and strive to be the faithful flock of Christ.


Jesus’ Resurrection is the ultimate witness of good shepherding: it witnesses to God’s power to bring the highest good out of the worst evil. No doubt we have considerable capacities for wickedness because of concupiscence (i.e., moral weakness), but it’s just foolish presumption to suppose that our wickedness can have the last word. In the end, God’s will is surely done. Let us strive to make our will follow the will of God and be the faithful flock of Christ.


Wolves in Sheeps' Clothing


Some years ago, in his sermon for Good Shepherd Sunday Father George Rutler, pastor of the Church of St. Michael the Archangel in New York City, made this observation:

“Wolves can fool the sheep, scattering and dividing them through flattery.” [24]

He went on to say:

“Often, the wolves do not look like wolves at all. It is easy to spot a terrorist, but most moral degenerates can disguise themselves well. Some wolves are sociopaths with such characteristics as superficial charm, few close friends, unsettling obliviousness to danger, lack of empathy with suffering people while claiming to feel their pain, chronic lying, manipulation by habitual laughter and feigned cheerfulness, and a restless ego. Although they have no 'concern for the sheep,' their anti-social skills paradoxically help them attain high places in society, supported by the very sheep they would devour. In contrast, the Good Shepherd “is one who lays down his life for his sheep.”

Scripture records: “The wolf cometh, and the hireling fleeth,” but “the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep.” [25] That is the witness of the Resurrection, and that is the promise of the Resurrection. And that is the witness and promise of the Sacrament of the Most Holy Eucharist. Out of Christ’s Body broken and Blood shed, the grace of God brings new and eternal life. That is good shepherding, and with such shepherding, we lack nothing.


A Singular Shepherd


There are a lot of shepherds out there who are wicked, others who are lazy, and some who are opportunistic. These false shepherds will tend to justify their actions and reckon themselves not all that bad. But the model shepherd—Christ—stands before them and calls them to be faithful shepherds. St. Peter denied Christ thrice, yet our Resurrected Lord gave him three opportunities to make reparation for this, [26] when He asked,

“Peter, do you love Me?” [27]

Our Blessed Savior called St. Peter to be a faithful shepherd, and told him, “feed my sheep.” [28]


St. Gregory the Great calls our attention to the fact that Christ is the Good Shepherd and He is “good,” in His very essence; Christ is not only good but goodness itself. Notice also that He does not say, “I am a good shepherd”, but “I am the Good Shepherd.” Our Savior is not one good shepherd among others; He alone is the good Shepherd. There is no comparison.



Indeed, this Good Shepherd alone obtains salvation for the entire fold, all of mankind. But what is man’s response? That is for each to decide for himself. Whose kingdom will be serve? Christ’s or Satan’s? As St. Peter preached to the Jews of old, “For there is no other name under heaven given to man, whereby we must be saved.” [29]


If you want a guru, go to Confusius, Buddah or Mohammed. But if you want to save your soul go to Jesus Christ and to His Church, which is His Holy Bride. Jesus is the good Shepherd to the exclusion of all other contenders. Christ is a singular shepherd, like unto none other. This Good Shepherd knows who belongs to Him as He is truly God and knows all things. But how do we know that we know Him?


I am the Gate

Every structure has an entrance. The Kingdom of God also has an entrance. It is Jesus Christ. Christ tells us,

“I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out and find pasture.” [30]

This is a reference to the Kingdom and recalls the words of the Psalmist, “He makes me lie down in green pastures.” [31]



At the top of the walls were often placed thorns which prevented wolves from leaping into the enclosure. Proper entrance was at the door only. In the first century when a shepherd penned in his sheep for the night he slept in the opening to the pen. He became the gate that kept the sheep in place. He served as the protection from things outside and reassurance for the sheep inside.


Salvation is found through Jesus Christ. He is the gate to the Kingdom of God, and no one can enter except through Him. [32] Having entered through Him, we enjoy the freedom of being the children of God, as Scripture records:

“For in Him we live and move and have our being.” [33]

Jesus was probably familiar with doors because He was the son of St. Joseph the carpenter. He had probably made many doors. Now, a building may have many doors. But God has only one door to His Kingdom, and that door is Jesus Christ.


The shepherd in Palestine lived a lonely life and was noted for his faithfulness and protection to his sheep. At night the sheep would be brought into an enclosure called a sheepfold (where sheep slept overnight) which had high walls to keep anything or anyone from getting in.


Following the Good Shepherd


In Holy Land, we see that the shepherd walks ahead of his sheep. He leads them. The sheep know their shepherd and trust him. They will not follow a stranger. The shepherds of Palestine generally had a name for each sheep, and each knew its own name and would come when called. If a stranger called, the sheep became nervous and stated and would not obey the voice of a stranger, for they knew their master’s voice. When they are half afield away, ewes know their lambs, just as lambs know their mothers by their bleats (i.e., “crys”). Similarly, shepherds know their sheep. They mark them as their own and can distinguish them from the sheep of another flock.


In a spiritual sense, on the day of Baptism, as we are baptized and become a member of Christ’s own flock, we are given a name (our Baptismal name) and are marked with the Sign of the Cross (marked with the Oil of the Catechumens and the Oil of Chrism in the Sign of the Cross). Christ becomes our Savior. In the Rite of Baptism, our ears are opened with spittle as the Priest says in Aramaic, Ephphetha, [34] marking them with the Sign of the Cross, and we know our Master’s voice.


The Good Shepherd Feeds His Sheep

Just as a shepherd provides food for his flock, Christ, the Good Shepherd, feeds us. We see that our spiritual sustenance comes to us through Christ. We are reminded of this in the Alleluia Verse of today’s Holy Mass:

Cognovérunt discípuli Dóminum Iesum in fractióne panis, allelúia (“The disciples knew the Lord in the breaking of the bread, alleluia”). [35]

The faithful flock know the Good Shepherd in the Holy Eucharist of which in St. John’s Gospel we read,

“...if any man eat of this Bread, he shall live forever.” [36]


Christ is no hireling; He has concern for His sheep; He does not desert His fold. Our Savior is in heaven in His resurrected and glorified body but on earth He dwells among us in the sacred silence of the Tabernacle. Christ, the Good Shepherd, continues to comfort and feed the flock of mankind with His divine life under the appearance of bread and wine, confected at every Holy Mass.


A PRAYER FOR GOOD SHEPHERD SUNDAY

Be our shepherd, O Lord, we entreat Thee; and may we receive all good things from thy sweetness, so that, obtaining an eternal habitation in thy tabernacles, we may be fulfilled with the plenteousness of thine everlasting cup, through Christ Our Lord. Amen. [37]

Notes

1 John 10:11-16.

2 Luke 2:1-20.

3 Psalm 22:1 (23:1).

4 Psalm 80:1.

5 Isaiah 40:1.

6 John 10:11.

7 Hanukkah is a Jewish festival commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt against the Seleucid Empire. It is also known as the Festival of Lights. It is observed for eight nights and days, starting on the 25th day of Kislev according to the Hebrew calendar, which may occur at any time from late November to late December in the Gregorian calendar. The festival is observed by lighting the candles of a candelabrum with nine branches, called a menorah.

8 John 10:11.

9 Isaiah 9:6–7.

10 Homer, who is thought to have been born around 750 BC, is the legendary author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, two epic poems that are the central works of ancient Greek literature. The impact of his tales continues to reverberate through Western culture to this day.

11 Plato (c. 424 BC – 348 BC) was an Athenian philosopher during the Classical period in Ancient Greece, founder of the Platonist school of thought, and the Academy, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. He is widely considered the pivotal figure in the history of Ancient Greek and Western philosophy, along with his teacher, Socrates, and his most famous student, Aristotle. The so-called Neoplatonism of philosophers like Plotinus and Porphyry influenced Saint Augustine and thus Christianity. Alfred North Whitehead once noted: “the safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”

12 The Republic is a Socratic dialogue, authored by Plato around 375 BC, concerning justice, the order and character of the just city-state, and the just man. It is Plato’s best-known work, and has proven to be one of the world’s most influential works of philosophy and political theory, both intellectually and historically. In the dialogue, Socrates talks with various Athenians and foreigners about the meaning of justice and whether the just man is happier than the unjust man. They consider the natures of existing regimes and then propose a series of different, hypothetical cities in comparison, culminating in Kallipolis (Καλλίπολις), a utopian city-state ruled by a philosopher king. They also discuss the theory of forms, the immortality of the soul, and the role of the philosopher and of poetry in society.

13 A sophist (Greek: σοφιστής, sophistes) was a specific kind of teacher in ancient Greece, in the fifth and fourth centuries BC. Many sophists specialized in using the tools of philosophy and rhetoric, though other sophists taught subjects such as music, athletics, and mathematics. In general, they claimed to teach arete (“excellence” or “virtue”, applied to various subject areas), predominantly to young statesmen and nobility.

14 Thrasymachus (c. 459 – c. 400 BC) was a sophist of ancient Greece best known as a character in Plato’s Republic. In ethics, Thrasymachus’ ideas have often been seen as the first fundamental critique of moral values. Thrasymachus’ insistence that justice is nothing but the advantage of the stronger seems to support the view that moral values are socially constructed and are nothing but the reflection of the interests of particular political communities. Thrasymachus can thus be read as a foreshadowing of Nietzsche, who argues as well that moral values need to be understood as socially constructed entities. In political theory, Thrasymachus has often been seen as a spokesperson for a cynical realism that contends that “might makes right.” As a sophist, Thrasymachus seems to serve as a kind of adversarial “straw-man” to Socrates’ probing philosophy, but a fair analysis does show him to be a typical sophist. When we analyze his argument and his general way of comporting himself in debate, we can appreciate why the ancient Greeks so disdained the sophists. Thrasymachus ends his participation in the conversation by meanly congratulating Socrates on his “victory,” and advising Socrates to “feast on his triumph” as though a supposed mutual effort at defining the philosophical question of justice were some sort of gladiatorial contest.

15 Jn. 10:11.

16 Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary was all sufficient for the redemption of the world. “For by one oblation He hath perfected forever them that are sanctified.” (Heb. 10:14).

17 Jn. 10:11.

18 Psalm 22:4 (23:4).

19 Psalm 22:1 (23:1).

20 Psalm 22:6 (23:6).

21 1 Corinthians 1:24.

22 John 10:16.

23 Romans 8:19, 21.

24 Psalms 5:10; 78:36; Proverbs: 28:23, 29:5.

25 John 10:11.

26 John 21:15-25.

27 John 21:15.

28 John 21:17.

29 Acts 4:12.

30 John 10:9.

31 Psalm 22:2 (23:2).

32 John 3:3, John 14:6.

33 Acts 17:28.

34 In Mark 7:31-37, some people bring Jesus a deaf man with a speech impediment. They ask him to impose hands. Jesus takes the man away from the crowd. First, he puts his fingers into the man’s ears. Then Jesus spits onto his own fingers and touches the man’s tongue. Looking up to heaven, Jesus groans and says, Ephphatha, which means “Be opened.” Immediately the man can hear and speak plainly. The Rite of Baptism instructs the Priest performing the Baptism: “Then you touch [the catechumen’s] nostrils and ears with spittle and say into their ear: Ephphetha, this is, “Be opened,” to a sweet aroma. But you, devil, flee, for the judgment of God has come near.”

35 Lk 24:35.36 Jn 6:52.37 Prayer from the pre-Reformation Psalter of Salisbury Cathedral.



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