In their liturgy of the fourth Sunday of Easter, Christians meditate on the beautiful words of Jesus Christ where he calls himself a good shepherd. (John 10:11-18)
Unfortunately this image of a shepherd does not carry much meaning to the technologised twenty-first century world.
When talking of sheep or other domestic animals we think more of a fenced farm and the like. It was a different story for the people who were listening to Jesus in his time.
They were looking at the landscape around Palestine, which then imposed on them a kind of nomadic life. Shepherds had to travel with their flock from one pasture land to another as the seasons changed.
That way, the shepherds established a remarkable rapport with their flock. Each sheep recognized the voice of their shepherd and distinguished it from others, and they learnt to obey the commands given by their shepherds.
They developed a perfect confidence in their shepherds and followed them wherever they leaded them. It is therefore with this background that a good or a bad shepherd was interpreted by those who were listening to Jesus.
In front of these people, Jesus called himself a good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. They must have understood him perfectly (at least those who wanted to), because they frequently depicted God as a shepherd throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, beginning with Gn 49:24.
In fact, the same title had been given to the great king David who was referred to as shepherd of the people in Ps 78:70-72.
It is interesting to note however that Jesus spent a considerable time talking about the bad shepherd; in fact about what a good shepherd is not, the “fake” shepherd who has no real concern for the sheep.
Such a one that would never “lay down his life for his sheep”. According to Jesus, when such a shepherd sees a wolf coming to attack the sheep, he runs away, leaving the sheep at the mercy of the predator wolf.
Jesus’ description of the bad shepherd leads us to wonder, “Who is the good shepherd? What is the good shepherd supposed to do?”
It is quite understandable that when talking of the good shepherd we may think of the church leaders who fulfill well their responsibility and to the bad ones as the ones who do not carry on well their duty.
This is both correct and logical. But more to it, the image of Jesus as the good shepherd points to the sheep which must be protected from the wolves.
In which of the two categories are you counted by the shepherd? In a particular way the same account points to the responsibility of all Christians.
We are called to imitate the good shepherd and to engage ourselves in the lives of others as the disciples of the good shepherd who gave his life so that others might live to the full.
We are all warned against the bad example of the bad shepherds who exploit the flock for their own gains without looking after them and protecting them from all sorts of danger.
This kind of malpractice should never be reason for discouragement, because the voice of Jesus continues to ring out to us calling our attention to the gate in which we must pass in order to reach our salvation.
He is both the gate and our salvation. We must stay awake therefore and attentive to that voice. Obviously, those who might not be accustomed to listening to the shepherd will not be able to distinguish his voice from the rest of the noise which is a common place around us.
In brief the parable of the good shepherd is a call for us to stay attentive and capable of distinguishing the voice of the good shepherd and to have courage to follow the right voice as well as teaching others to do the same.
This we must do not through our words only, but through our own way of life as well.