The Gospel image of this weekend (all three Lectionary cycles) is that of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. It’s a beautiful image, and it’s one that has been enshrined in some of the earliest Christian art, including paintings and sculptures from the Roman catacombs. Most famously, it’s been of Christ as the man who lost 1 of 100 sheep, found it, and is carrying it home on his shoulders.
In the 10th chapter of the Fourth Gospel, Jesus expands on this image: He is the (only and authentic) Gate to the safety of the sheepfold; He is the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep; no one can take the sheep out of His hand. These are all consoling images, especially for those who are suffering from persecution, or attacks of one kind or another. Those people need a protector, a savior, a defender.
It’s important here to recognize that the Greek word usually translated good actually means noble, worthy of imitation. He’s not “benevolent”—He’s filled with power and authority and courage. He is the utter opposite of a hireling.
The fact of the presence of the hireling among us has been criticized (sadly) since the times of St Augustine in North Africa, St Jerome in the Holy Land, and St Gregory the Great in Rome—the 4th and 6th centuries, or in other words once the Church became established, protected, and privileged. Worse, as Jesus warned, we have historically encountered wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matthew 7:15; see also Acts 20:28-31a). In large part their avarice led to the 16th century cries for reformation. Their desire to protect their self-interests has led to the scandals of cover-up we are suffering through today. It is very, very sad.
But Jesus is THE “Good (worthy of imitation) Shepherd, and it is to Him we always must turn. Rely on the Lord–first, last, and always. And do NOT relegate yourselves to the role traditionally ascribed to sheep—mute, ignorant, easily swayed by who/whatever is in front of them. Be trained and formed, be rooted and fruitful, be active and perceptive, be people who can hold a mirror up to the rest of us clergy.
When John Henry Newman was battling for the rights and dignity of lay-people, his bishop actually said, “The laity? Who are they?” Newman’s reply: “The Church would look foolish without them.” Our liturgy prays too regularly for “an obedient flock to follow the shepherds.” We need to be praying much more for dedicated and fearless shepherds who know how and where to lead the sheep—not for fleecing, but for salvation. Long live Jesus the Good Shepherd!!