Easter 4 is known as the “Good Shepherd’s Sunday” or “Vocations Sunday”, and it marks the turning point of Eastertide. The focus of our readings will now shift from Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, about which we were reading in the first half of the season, to the theme of vocation introduced by today’s parable of the Good Shepherd. This will prepare us to conclude the Easter season with celebrating the origins of the Church at the feast of Pentecost. Over the next few weeks, we will revisit Jesus’ words to his disciples regarding the meaning and purpose of our life in God: “I am the vine and you are the branches”, “I do not call you servants but friends”, “you’re in this world but not of this world”. But first, today we reflect on the identity of our Good Shepherd, and the way it shapes our relationship with the Creator and the fellow members of the human “flock”.
As part of today's parable, Jesus says: “The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice… he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice… I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” Upon hearing this, some of his audience takes him for a raving lunatic, while others are moved to reflect on his miracles they’d just witnessed in an entirely new light. Imagine, even Jesus’ contemporaries were divided by the differences in their understanding of his rapidly meandering metaphors (how can both the gate and the shepherd point to the same inference?). And that was in spite of their centuries-long agrarian context. How much harder it is for us, who have neither first-hand experience with the sheep, nor the legacy of such a tradition, to aid our interpretation. As a result, we may get sidetracked by reading too much into the intelligence level of the sheep, or whether the care bestowed on them really matters if they are destined for a fire-spit, and applying these images to construct a rather unflattering identity for ourselves as creatures. I prefer to focus on the characteristics of the Shepherd rather than the sheep, and try to understand how/why the biblical writers used such imagery to reflect on their relationship with the Creator.
Leaders and rulers being called “shepherds” in the ancient world was not exclusive to Israel. From the King Hammurabi of Babylon to Homer, three figures of speech combined to form the notion of an ideal kingship: the loving father, the military ruler, and the shepherd. The shepherding motif is found throughout the Scripture. Israelite Patriarchs, Moses, and David were all shepherds. Jacob referred to God as a shepherd in Genesis, as did the psalmists. The Prophets introduced “the Good Shepherd” epithet to talk about the coming Messiah, which Jesus borrows centuries later. Jeremiah asks, “who is the shepherd who can stand against me?”, referring to the rulers of Egypt, whose art featured the shepherd’s crook as a symbol of royal protection and power. Isaiah names Medo-Persian conqueror Cyrus the Great as the Shepherd called to rescue the Israelites from Babylon. And of course, the paradoxical statement in Revelation, “the Lamb in the center of the throne shall be their shepherd”, just about sums up the entire essence of our scriptures.
But in addition to applying the shepherding metaphors as a form of praise, the Prophets also have a few choice words for their inadequate leaders -- the "bad/wicked shepherds". Ezekiel describes in vivid terms how these leaders treated their flock with “force and severity”, and “slaughtered their sheep for their own gain, rather than feeding them”. The most devastating result of such bad shepherding is the ensuing scattering of the Flock: they became lost, preyed upon, with no one to seek them out (see Ezekiel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Zechariah, and Micah). As such, the Good Shepherd was expected first and foremost to restore the lost community: to “search for my sheep and seek them out” (Ezekiel), and to “gather the lambs, and carry them in His bosom” (Isaiah).
Psalm 23, as popular then as it is now, paints a beautiful and comforting picture of such a Shepherd, using various aspects of his job to illustrate the degree of care God has for his creatures. But I find it significant that Jesus and the Prophets refer to Jesus/God/Messiah as the “good” shepherd, rather than a “skilled shepherd”. This word “good” appears in other biblical passages with a much broader sense; that of being excellent in nature, morally beautiful, noble, and true. Hence, the goodness of the true Shepherd goes much further than his professional ability to nourish, lead, and protect -- the bad shepherds may also know full well the technicalities of tending the flocks, but will they ever “lay down their life for the flock” or really come to “know the sheep”, as Jesus insists the Good Shepherd would do?
Thereby, Jesus emphasizes the two defining characteristics of the Good Shepherd, as opposed to a merely “skilled” one. First, is his self-sacrificial stance towards caring for the Flock. Interestingly, in a very complicated passage in Zechariah 11, the true shepherd asks for his wages and receives 30 pieces of silver, which God then tells him to throw, disdainfully, to the potter (does that remind us of anything we’ve read only a few weeks ago?) And second, is the intimate knowledge that the true Shepherd cultivates between himself and the Flock, as well as between the Flock members. This is the kind of a communion that Jesus exemplifies by his relationship with the mysterious Father: “my own will know me just as I know the Father”.This is what truly unites the flock; thereby, protecting it from the prowling wolves who are looking to snatch and destroy.
What are these “prowling wolves” of our times? The societal trends that prey on our minds, the wild animals of our psyche, the scary thoughts and destructive habits that feed on all that is good in our lives? Also, what are the issues that divide our flock, tearing us apart from each other? It is not difficult to pinpoint the worst “beasts” of today: the threat to our life and wellbeing, and to that of our loved ones; the uncertainty about the future; anxiety and fear; loneliness and isolation; economic hardship. Those “wolves” tend to hunt by dividing the flock, and make us feel cut off and alone. Much division manifests itself in the social media and home discussion, where our views on the severity of the virus and appropriateness of the containment measures pit us against each other and highlight all the previous disagreements, such as our views on politics and social justice. Can we still say that we “know” God and recognize his voice in these challenging times? How are we contributing to his work of gathering back and unifying the flock? What are our strategies to silence the wolves inside our hearts and minds so we can better hear the voice of our Shepherd?
As Jesus said to Peter: “if you love me, feed my lambs”. But in his very next utterance, Jesus also warned Peter that this might lead to “where you do not want to go”. Every single one of us has a vocation. Many of us are already living out its elements in our personal or professional lives. But what distinguishes our “vocation” from an “occupation” is our “goodness” vs. our “skill”. Our “goodness” manifests in a self-sacrificial attitude and true communion with others - the characteristics of the Good Shepherd that we have been created to emulate. These go hand in hand, since to truly understand another, we first need to sacrifice our own impulses to be heard and to be right -- which is definitely somewhere we don’t always “want to go to”. How are we picking our way through these trying times? Do we look for the path that will take us beyond it, or do we merely avoid falling over the nearest cliff? The pandemic crisis will one day end, but many of our relationships that we have the power to affect with our every action and word, will stay with us for decades. Let us not lose sight of this perspective, and invest in our future by discerning our true vocation even now -- in this strange and liminal world of today.