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Fourth Sunday of Eastertide: 21 April

‘I am the Good Shepherd’

 ‘I am the Good Shepherd’  ING-016
19 April 2024

The fourth Sunday of Eastertide is traditionally known as “Good Shepherd Sunday” because in each of the three years of the cycle the gospel is taken from John 10 in which Jesus develops an extended metaphor of the shepherd and the sheep. In the opening words of today’s gospel, he proclaims, I am the good shepherd. The adjective “good” in the Greek text is curious: its original meaning was “beautiful” and from there it expanded in a personal/moral direction. Beauty, at whatever level we consider it, attracts us. “You hold out a green twig to a sheep, and you draw it”, says St Augustine. It is the beauty of the Lord that draws the sheep to follow him.

The application of the gospel image is clear: we his followers are the sheep. It may not be very attractive to be thought of as sheep, but the central proclamation today is that the Lord is entirely dedicated to us and will do anything for our good: an embracing and encouraging message in an age of bewilderment.

Looking more closely at the text, we notice two pairs of contrasts: the first is between the shepherd and the hireling; the second between the sheep and the wolf. The hireling may well be efficient, but at the first sign of danger leaves the sheep and flees, driven by the selfish dominance of the ego. The shepherd, on the other hand, knows his sheep and plainly loves them: the phrase lays down his life is repeated in various ways four times in the text. The motive in this case is a self-sacrificing love that almost recklessly fails to count the cost.

The sheep are passive and “gregarious”; we may think of them as unintelligent, but they have two inspired qualities: they respond to the “beauty” of the shepherd with recognition and trust, and they heed his voice. The wolf is the bestial counterpart of the hireling and symbolizes greed (snatches them) and division (scatters them). We may remember that the Greek verb that generated our “diabolic” originally meant to set at variance or divide.

Let’s not be ingenuous: none of us is fully on the part of the shepherd/sheep and in everyone there are traces of hireling/wolf. The gospel, while proclaiming the paschal compassion of Jesus, sets us, indirectly, a moral challenge. The dying to self so as to live with Christ which is the core of our baptism, implies a constant commitment to extirpate the mercenary and the wolfish within us. This task will not end until the end.

By Fr Edmund Power osb