Certainly among the most affectionate of Christian images is the depiction of Jesus Christ as the Good Shepherd. Woolly lambs cozying up to the Savior’s knee and the Master himself embracing a cuddly animal close to his chest have brought consolation to centuries of Christian believers who find themselves in somber situations. Knowing that there is gentle guide available to escort the bereft believer through the thick and thin of life’s upheavals brightens many a challenging moment in the Christian’s daily life. Yet, just possibly, Jesus had his tongue in his cheek when the Savior compared his community of believers to a flock of sheep. Sheep are notoriously clueless animals!
Sheep are particularly independent. Unlike cattle, sheep do not have a herding instinct. They do not roam in packs like wolves or soar together like geese. Their only concern is their own nourishment. Nose to the ground, lambs, ewes and rams, nibble their way through life, totally unconcerned about the nearness of the cliff or the bramble’s prickly branches or the swiftly approaching wolf. Oblivious to their surroundings, sheep are famously known for getting lost — as Christ’s own parables eloquently testify. So selecting the image of a flock of sheep as a model for the future church whose groundwork Christ was preparing during his three years of public life does not seem like the ideal depiction of the tight-knit, community-minded, selfless organization that all believers hope Christ’s Church might be. But, then again, perhaps mankind’s sheepish inability to form a cohesive society, a united people, a common identity, is precisely Jesus’ point in labelling his future followers as sheep, desperately in need of a shepherd.
Jesus Christ was not the first Biblical character to project the image of a shepherd as a symbol of unity, oneness and solidarity. Recall that King David, the Old Testament figure to whom Christ is compared most often in the New Testament, started his life as a shepherd. The youthful David was in the fields tending sheep when the prophet came to David’s father to secure a successor to the ageing King Saul. David, the youngest son, was selected, quite unlikely in ancient societies, as heir to the kingdom. David happily went on to become the first Jewish king to unite all twelve tribes of Israel around the city of Jerusalem. So David went down in Jewish history as the founding father, the great unifier, the nation builder, indeed, the good shepherd.
Now, in this coming Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus recalls the image of the shepherd who, David-like, will unite not just the Twelve Tribes of Israel but all mankind through the saving event of his Passion and Death to be accomplished in that same city of Jerusalem. Jesus announces proudly, “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish. No one can take them out of my hand.” The message here is that closeness to Jesus, heeding his voice, following his lead, and holding his hand is the only sure path that will prevent the believer from succumbing eternally and guarantee his or her entrance into eternal life. Salvation is not the result of a vague philosophy or amorphous beliefs or a personal lifestyle. Salvation is the fruit of personally hearing Jesus, knowing Jesus and following Jesus. Jesus is clearly the Good Shepherd, the pastor uniquely equipped to lead all mankind to the fullness of revelation and life. Like King David, authoritatively selected to carry out God’s Will for Jewish unity, so too Jesus Christ is decisively commissioned by the Father to be the great unifier of all mankind: “My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can take them out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.” Jesus enters the great ministry of evangelizing the world with complete Divine endorsement. The Father “has given them to me,” Jesus boasts. And then, he proudly dismisses all questions about his pastoral authority by proclaiming, “The Father and I are one.”
The shepherding work of Jesus Christ is continued throughout history by the several pastoral ministries found today in Christ’s Church. Our Holy Father, the Pope, continues the shepherding commission given to St. Peter when Christ explicitly and uniquely commissioned the apostle to “feed my lambs, feed my sheep.” In turn the bishops of the Church are the successors to those apostles who were first appointed to “make disciples of all nations…teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” And the Church’s many pastors (Latin for shepherd), on a number of levels, guide and guard the faithful on the path to the New Jerusalem. Catholics must wisely heed our shepherds and, just as important, pray for our shepherds as the message from Christ they offer is less and less welcomed by today’s secular world.