Acts 2:14a–36–41; Psalm: 23; 1 Peter 2:20b–25; John 10:1–10
We have a common image in our readings this week: the image of the shepherd. First, we see the first shepherd of the Church appointed by Jesus, Peter, speaking during Pentecost. Then we have the famous Psalm 23, which likens God to a shepherd in whose care the sheep want or lack nothing. In 1 Peter, we hear that we should follow in the footsteps of the shepherd, who is Jesus. And then in the gospel, Jesus calls himself the gate of the sheepfold, through which only true shepherds can go in and out.
Middle- and near-eastern history gives us two contradictory impressions of the shepherd. First, there is the image of king as shepherd. If you’ve ever seen an image of a pharaoh’s sarcophagus or statue, you might have noticed that he holds a crook and a flail. That crook represented to the ancient Egyptians the pharaoh’s role as their leader and protector, and the flail represented him as the provider of grain and flour for his flock. And of course, the Israelites followed suit, taking David, a shepherd, as their hero and king. The notion of king as shepherd was common in the near east in the first few millennia BC, and you can see how at very least it was captured in the trappings of the Egyptian king. And David’s Psalm 23 depicts God as a shepherd who cares for His flock and guides them to where they are safe and can graze and live abundantly.
Oddly, during the time of Christ, shepherds were among the lowest of the low. They were outcastes—perhaps considered only slightly above prostitutes and tax collectors in the reckoning of the Pharisees and Sadducees. They were unwashed, smelly, and coarse in habit, certainly not keeping the purification rituals out there in the fields. They left their wives home unprotected, and they were considered guilty of any number of sins of impurity.
The shepherds, of course, would be exactly the people Jesus was trying to reach. He always sought the outcaste, the lost. Interestingly, the shepherds were counted among the lost sheep of Israel. And Jesus mixed with these sheep. To the religious Jews, he no doubt smelled like those sheep. The image Jesus uses here in John turns the tables on the relationships between the outcastes and the religious Jews and Pharisees.
In the gospel reading, Jesus is addressing a group of Pharisees who have just seen a blind man healed by Jesus, and they challenge Jesus to say whether they too are blind, in a figurative sense. They have just called him out for healing on the Sabbath. So first he calls them blind, and then he suggests that they are thieves and robbers. Jesus wasn’t exactly diplomatic. After he tells them they’re blind and likens them to thieves, he puts the outcastes above them. He says that the shepherds—the real shepherds—will lead the flocks through Him to salvation. Jesus is the gate to the sheepfold, and he knows the true shepherds because he chooses them himself.
Now, of course, we don’t look down so much on shepherds in our culture, simply because we’re not very aware of them. But sheep don’t have such a great image in our society. If you’ve ever dealt with sheep, you know that they’re not the brightest creatures. They don’t smell very good, and when they get lost or confused, they plop down and bleat until someone comes to rescue them. They need guidance, and they need protection—protection often from their own inclinations.
This week’s readings encourage us to trust our shepherds: whether it’s Jesus himself or those to whom his authority has been entrusted—our bishops and pastors. The Latin word for shepherd—pastor—literally means “feeder,” so it works really well with our ecclesiology—or our notion of Church, since we are a sacramental and Eucharistic Church. Not all denominations have pastors who are so clearly tied to feeding. Our Lord was born in Bethlehem, a name that means “the house of bread.” As a newborn, He was laid in a manger—feeding trough where livestock eat. He is called for us the Bread of Life. So I find it a wonderful coincidence that the word for shepherd—an image he uses so frequently—stands for someone who is in our midst to feed us, as Fr. Henry will do in just a few minutes right here.
Sadly, we usually don’t look at our pastors with that level of respect or entrust them with that level of trust. We in the U.S. are so averse to authority. We don’t like any person telling us what we should do. As a culture, we’ve rejected the entire notion of collective moral values. We see them as binding and enslaving. No one can tell us what to do! They can’t make us do what the Church says!
Which sounds a whole lot like, “You’re not the boss of me” when we get right down to it. We sound a bit more like goats than sheep. We view guidance as oppression, never recognizing the slavery that comes from having no guidance, no boundaries, and no discipline. But this stems from our dysfunctional understanding authority.
Think of Psalm 23. It says, “Your rod and staff comfort me.” What does a shepherd do with his rod and staff? He prods the sheep when needed. He moves them from side to side and guides them. He drags them back with the crook. The tools that the shepherd uses for the sheep are tools of discipline. But they also bring comfort because they bring safety. They can keep the sheep together, but they can also be used to keep predators at bay. Legitimate authority, legitimate discipline brings comfort. This fact is clear enough if you study family dynamics. A household without discipline is chaotic, and the children fearful and out of control. With legitimate discipline, the sheep have freedom to wander where they can and have all that they need. Without it, they are at the mercy of wolves; they are in danger from thieves and robbers.
There is a reason why our bishops’ crosiers are shaped like shepherds’ crooks. It is a reminder to us of their authority—an authority they use to guide and protect. In First Peter, our first Vicar of Christ encourages Christians throughout Asia to return “to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.” Peter, acting as Christ vicariously, exercises that same authority—hence the letter itself, perhaps the first Papal encyclical to the whole Christian world. Our bishops derive their authority through the centuries from the Apostles. Their apostolic ministry, then, derives from the same source as Peter’s. They too act vicariously as the shepherd and guardian of souls, when they do their jobs well.
Pope Francis recently said that a shepherd should smell like his flock. He encourages priests and bishops to lead from the front, to mix with their sheep, to stand with them in the midst of the trials and dangers of life. That’s what it means to be a good shepherd. May we all be blessed with such guidance and submit willingly to their Apostolic authority so that we too can say, “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.” We too can have life and have it more abundantly.