25 April 2021 – Good Shepherd Sunday
Acts 4:8-12 1 John 3:1-2 John 10:11-18
‘The Good Shepherd is the one who lays down his life for his sheep’ (John 10:11)
Today, the World Day of Prayer for Vocations, we are invited to reflect on the meaning of God’s call and to pray for vocations to the service of the Church and its mission. To help us reflect on the meaning of vocation – a call to serve others – the Church, in today’s Gospel, presents us with the figure of Jesus, the Good Shepherd.
In biblical times there were two kinds of shepherds. There was the hired hand for whom minding the sheep was no more than a job. He would move from one flock to another depending on the conditions of service, but would never dream of risking his life for the sheep. If he saw wolves or thieves approaching, he would flee for dear life and leave the flock to the mercy of the marauders. Then there was the shepherd-owner of the flock who stayed with the same flock all his life. He knew every sheep in his flock individually. He could call each one by name and relate the life story of each one – when and where it was born, the difficulties it had gone through, its temperament and particular traits.
The Shepherd-Owner was devoted to his sheep. He knew the one likely to lag behind the others on a long trek, and he would lift it up and carry it on his shoulders or in his arms. He knew the one that was likely to stray from the flock and kept his eye out for it when passing through dangerous terrain. When attacked by wolves or thieves, he would fight to protect his sheep and even lay down his life for them.
The expression ‘laying down his life for his sheep’ comes from the practice in Israel of keeping the sheep in an enclosed space with just a narrow opening for the sheep to go in and out. At night, the shepherd would lie down and stretch his body across the opening so that the sheep would not wander out or wolves enter in. If one of the flock went missing, he would climb mountains and hills looking for it, calling out its name. And whether the missing sheep had fallen into a pit or was trapped in a bush of thorns, as soon as it heard the voice of its master, it would bleat and the shepherd would go and rescue it.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd par excellence. He laid down his life for love of us. As St John puts it: ‘Having loved those who were his own in the world, he loved them to the end’ (Jn 13:1). In a culture in which leaders ‘made their authority felt’ and insisted on others serving them obsequiously, Jesus modeled a leadership of loving service without conditions or limits. To illustrate what it meant to be a ‘Good Shepherd’ and give one’s life in the service of others, he washed his disciples’ feet – the action of a slave! The Good Shepherd model of leadership is still profoundly counter-cultural. The nineteenth century Italian poet, Hugo Bassi, expresses this sacrificial quality of Christian service in the following verse:
‘Measure thy life by loss and not by gain;
Not by the wine drunk, but by the wine poured forth;
For love’s strength standeth in love’s sacrifice
And who so suffers most hath most to give’
This is the model of leadership that all Church ministers, clerical and lay, are called and challenged to emulate today. When people see that their leaders are prepared to pour out their lives in truly loving and caring service, they too will be inspired and empowered to serve one another in love. I will end with a beautiful prayer, said in time of danger or distress (such as the time in which we now live), that spells out the meaning of Christian service:
‘Open our eyes to the needs of all. Inspire us with words and deeds to comfort those who labour and are overburdened. Keep our service of others faithful to the example of Christ. Let your Church be a living witness to truth and freedom, to justice and peace, that all people may be lifted up by the hope of a world made new.’
Let us pray for all involved the service of leadership in the Church today that they may display the qualities of the Good Shepherd, not those of the hired hand. Amen.
Michael McCabe SMA