“My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27).
Among the many metaphors used to describe Jesus and his relationship to the church, the image of the Good Shepherd is rich in meaning, even for our contemporary understanding. A watchful shepherd had a personal knowledge of each member of the flock entrusted to him or her. Guiding them to pasture for weeks at a time, day and night, produced an intimate and mutual recognition between sheep and shepherd. The faithful shepherd took total responsibility for the flock, and the sheep were totally dependent on his or her care. The shepherd knew that he had to bring the flock home safe, accounting for each one and for any lambs born during the grazing time.
The imagery used in the gospels reflected earlier scriptural passages from the prophets (cf Ezekiel 34), the psalms (23), and the memory of leaders like David and Moses, who were shepherds. But in the case of Jesus, the metaphor was also expanded to include his role as the Passover lamb, sacrificed to mark the doorposts with blood and as the food of Exodus. So he is both shepherd and lamb, leader and sacrifice. To follow him in faith is to enter into this identity as our participation in the Paschal Mystery. Like Jesus, we care for one another, even to the point of laying down our own lives for the flock.
For John in today’s gospel reading, the emphasis is on the faith that enable us to recognize the authentic voice of Jesus in the midst of other voices, false shepherds intent on fleecing the flock, false leaders who flee when the flock is threatened. From the scandal of abuse to those who pocket church funds, today’s readings indict anyone who would seek their own advantage in any official church role.
At the same time, even in the midst of crisis and scandal, Jesus declares his absolute commitment to the church and to each of us. Because we have been entrusted to his loving care by the Father, Jesus will not lose any of us, but will bring us home safely. He has already laid down his life to claim us for all eternity, so if we follow him we need not be anxious or afraid. This is the joy of the Gospel.
If you want to see what a Good Shepherd looks like and does, watch Pope Francis during his visit to the refugee camp on the Greek Island of Lesbos at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bu5i5xWX-LY