Homily 4th Sunday of Easter A
Fr. Paul D. Williams, Jr.
Jesus used the image of himself as the good shepherd, for the image that he used in today’s Gospel would have been intimately familiar to the Jewish people. Perhaps not so much to us today, but the meaning is still very powerful.
The life of a shepherd was very hard. He was never off duty, for the sheep were never left to graze on their own. The desert climate was brutally hot during the day and very cold at night. There was little grass, so the sheep tended to wander and had to be constantly watched. There were no fences or protection from ravines and cliffs. The shepherd also had to guard the flock against wild animals, especially against wolves, and there were always thieves and robbers ready to steal the sheep. As he led the sheep from pasture to pasture, he would go first, searching for any dangers and leading them down the right path. “He walks in front of them and the sheep follow him.” The shepherd, whose image was used throughout scripture, was a model of constant vigilance, fearless courage, and patient self-sacrifice.
When Jesus referred to himself as the “gate”, he as referring to a common practice of shepherds at the time. “I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be safe.” On some evenings, he would gather them into an enclosure with just one exit and he would lay down across the entrance. If the sheep tried to get out, they would literally have to walk over the shepherd sleeping at the entrance as the gate; the same for the wolf that tried to get in. He literally “laid down his life for his sheep.” But perhaps the most beautiful thing about shepherds was that they literally knew each of their sheep by name. “The sheep hear his voice as he calls his own by name.” Usually, he would give them a descriptive name, like “brown-leg” or “black-ear.” But each sheep was unique to him and would come when he called its unique name, so much so that if two shepherds, each with a hundred or more sheep, met in a field and their flock mingled, they could separate them again simply by calling out his unique call.
The Jews had a lovely legend to explain why God chose Moses to be the leader of his people. When Moses was feeding the sheep of his father-in-law in the wilderness, a young kid ran away. Moses followed it until it reached a ravine, where it found a well to drink from. When Moses got up to it he said, “I did not know you ran away because you were thirsty. Now you must be weary.” He took the kid on his shoulders and carried it back. Then God said, “Because you have shown pity in leading back one of a flock belonging to a man, you shall lead my flock Israel.” (Barclay on John 10.)
So, when Jesus used the example of the shepherd to refer to himself, the Jewish people knew immediately what that meant: that he was someone who knew each of them by name, cared for them intimately, guided them on the right path, and was willing to lay down his life for them.
That is why we need good shepherds today. Too often today, children are left to “graze on their own,” to find their own way in the midst of a hostile culture. They are given little guidance or advice about which pastures to graze in, nor are the protected much from the “thieves and marauders” who come only to “steal and slaughter and destroy.” Because they have not been nurtured from their youth with a gentle shepherd’s guidance, they follow whatever voice happens to speak the loudest or tells them what they want to hear.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge has an interesting anecdote which may illustrate this. He told this story: “I showed a friend my garden and told him it was my botanical garden. ‘How so?’ said he, ‘it is covered with weeds.’ - ‘Oh,’ I replied, ‘that is only because it has not yet come to its age of discretion and choice. The weeds, you see, have taken liberty to grow, and I thought it unfair of me to prejudice the soil towards roses and strawberries.’” So, the nurturing, guiding, shepherding hand of a parent is necessary for the proper moral formation of our children.
But for parents to be effective shepherds of their children, they must have a shepherd themselves. And that shepherd is our Lord, Jesus Christ, who knows each of us by name, cares for us intimately, guides us on the right path, and laid down his life for us. He says, “I came that they might have life and have it to the full.” Following our Lord means that we will experience the fullness of life, as God intended it, and if we follow he, allow him to be our shepherd, then we will be a good shepherds to our children, who in turn will have life and have it to the full.
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