“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.
“I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.
“For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”
John 10: 11-18
Reflection – We’re reading through John 10 this week, in view of the fact that it is the Gospel reading for this Fourth Week of Easter. Yesterday we had Jesus the gate, the one entry point to the life of the kingdom.
Today we have Jesus the shepherd, and we see in this shepherding of Christ his own confrontation with death and evil, sin and destruction in the world. Jesus fed himself to the wolf for us, in a way that is entirely unique, entirely His. Nobody else can do, or is supposed to do, what Jesus did in the face of evil, the world’s evil, my evil, your evil.
Nonetheless, we are meant not to imitate it (although the great martyrs for the faith have come very close indeed), but certainly to echo it in our lives. And so we have this great distinction drawn between ‘shepherd’ and ‘hired man’. The one who really loves the sheep and is in fact willing to suffer and die for them… and the one who looks like a shepherd superficially, but when the chips are down, flees. Doesn’t really care. Isn’t really all the interested in the welfare of the sheep.
Now of course this shepherd/hired man contrast is a powerful examination of conscience for those of us called to the clerical office—just how much do we really care for the people God has entrusted to us, and just what are we willing to suffer for their sake? This is a constant goad in the flesh of anyone in ordained ministry, or should be, a permanent remedy for complacency or comfort.
But you know, Pope Francis has been calling us out of a clericalist mindset, and I think we can take this Gospel as a case in point. All of us—all the baptized—are the sheep of God. And all of us—all the baptized—are shepherds with Christ, too. Yes of course the ordained clergy have a specific and unique role in the Body of Christ. But all of us together are the Body of Christ, the Body of the Shepherd, even as all of us together are most definitely his little sheep, that one flock the shepherd has constituted with the call of his voice to all humanity.
When we read this Gospel as being first about Christ but then really about the whole of the Body of Christ, all of us together, and only in a tertiary and very limited sense about the clergy, then it becomes a very powerful call to Christian maturity and engagement in the work and mission of the Redeemer.
Namely, am I willing to die for you, today? Are you willing to die for me, today? Are we willing to die for the people we live with, be they family, community members (in my case), or our immediate circle of neighbors, co-workers, acquaintances? What are we willing to do, and how far is each one of us willing to go for the mission of love in this world?
These are deep questions, only answerable in the innermost sanctum of the human heart where each of us walks and talks with God ‘in the cool of the evening’. Ultimately, each of us must answer Him the question, ‘are you a shepherd, or a hired man?’ I suspect—well, really I know—that while God is merciful and even the most craven hired man may find compassion awaiting him in the Shepherd’s heart, that our actual contribution to the mission of Christ in the world, our actual participation and fruitfulness in building up His kingdom in our lives rests largely on how we answer the question.
Am I willing to suffer and die with and for Christ, with and for my brothers and sisters? Jesus tells us here that this is the only way the ‘wolf’, the great symbol here of destruction, disorder, death, evil, is defeated. We can talk, and write, and do all the corporal and spiritual works of mercy we like, and still in some deep way be 'hired men'. It is this inner reality of sacrificial love that makes us shepherds, gives life in abundance and bears fruit in this world. This, and nothing else. And that is what Christ the Shepherd teaches his sheep, and how he forms his sheep to be shepherds alongside of him.