May 15, 2011 - Fourth Sunday of Easter

Today, the fourth Sunday of Easter is commonly called Good Shepherd Sunday, since every year on this day, the readings are about shepherds. This analogy of sheep and shepherds can be somewhat difficult since, unlike the first to hear the message, shepherds are not so common around here. We are often left with cartoon images of sheep and sayings about sheep.

A sheep is not a very complementary name to be called in our culture. It has certain connotations about mindlessly following the crowd. If someone suggests that you are a sheep they are saying that you are not making your own path in life, but obeying the demands of culture or religion.

Now, I have never worked with sheep. It is in fact not very often that I have seen a sheep. However, this popular image of sheep as mindlessly following the crowd seems to me to be incorrect. Most of the parables in scripture about sheep are concerned with the wandering sheep. The sheep who goes off into the wilderness. As Isaiah said, “We, like sheep, have gone astray.”

It seems then that the scriptural image of sheep is the exact opposite of the popular cultural image of sheep. The do not mindlessly follow the crowd, but, rather, are constantly wandering off into danger. I do not know if sheep have changed so radically in the past 2000 years or if the saying is merely the result of our complete unfamiliarity with sheep.

The job of a shepherd is, or at least was 2000 years ago, primarily to keep the sheep, who do not want to stay in the flock, together. There is a certain mixture of carefully nudging and actually picking up and carrying that seems to be required.

Then John tells us that “although Jesus used this figure of speech, the Pharisees did not realize what he was trying to tell them.” At this point we might be sitting very smug. We know what the metaphor is all about. We know that we are the sheep and Jesus is the shepherd; we follow Jesus because we recognize his voice. Those Pharisees seem kind of stupid if they cannot get that.

Then Jesus explains the metaphor, and we are put in our place. He says, “I am the the gate for the sheep.” This is unexpected, because we might think that he is the shepherd. In fact, in other places he says, “I am the good shepherd.” However, here he is the gate. Who are the shepherds then? We knows this, since Shepherd is an important title in the Church. The language of the Church, of course, is Latin. The Latin word for shepherd is “pastor”. Pastor.

Every individual parish has a pastor, a shepherd. The pastor here is ________. He is, to use English, the shepherd of ____________. The associate pastor, the assistant shepherd, is ___________. Pastor is a title reserved to priests. Every pastor is priest or bishop, although not every priest is necessarily a pastor or associate pastor. Our pastors are men, like any of us, with faults, but Jesus has chosen them to be the shepherds of his sheep.

We see, in the readings today, how Jesus uses ordinary men to be shepherds. The first reading describes how Peter shepherded the people. He proclaimed to them that they had gone astray and when they asked what they should do he told them how to get back on the right path. In the second reading, a letter written by Peter to the whole Church many years later, he continues shepherding the people, instructing them on the right path and proclaiming the truth of the Gospel.

In the Gospel, Jesus tells us how a man becomes a shepherd. He is not like a thief and robber who climbs over the fence on his own initiative: a shepherd enters through the gate, opened for him by the gatekeeper. Remember, Jesus says that he is the gate. No individual person can simply declare themself to be a pastor on their own authority. They must enter through Jesus. They must be approved. The gatekeeper, which is to say the bishop, chooses who can enter through the gate, and only those who have entered through the gate are true shepherds. Everyone else, if they pretend to be shepherds, are just thieves.

Once a man enters through the gate, he has to be a good shepherd. A shepherd is not a hired hand. The shepherd claims the sheep as his very own. He does not come simply to make a living. He will not abandon the sheep if the job becomes too difficult or too dangerous. He cares for the sheep. He certainly does not use the sheep for his own affirmation or personal pride or gain or deny the sheep the food which is the Word of God. This was the accusation leveled against the shepherds of Israel in the Old Testament. It is an accusation which, unfortunately, we are not entirely unfamiliar with. For as many good pastors as there are, there are also pastors who do not care for the sheep but rather care for themselves.

The readings today are also instructive for us sheep. They tell us how to recognize a good shepherd. First of all, we should only accept those who entered through the gate, those whom our bishop has appointed as shepherd. Second, the sheep hear the voice of the true shepherd and follow him. It cannot be of course that we, the sheep, will recognize the voice of every shepherd. Indeed, it is not the tones of the voice that we recognize, but the words spoken. We recognize the true Gospel which comes from the true shepherd. If anyone, even a legitimate pastor, ever comes to us and preaches to us a different Gospel, we should not follow them.

This does not mean that we should judgmental and critical of every word the pastor speaks, never letting him teach us something new about Jesus. But we sheep do have an important role we should use sparingly: if we ever do not recognize the voice of our pastor, if we hear things contrary to what we know Jesus said, we ought to dig in our heels and refuse to be led off a cliff.

When we see a pastor, we ought to see two men. One, like us, is really just a sheep with his own faults and his own sins. The other, unlike us, stands in the place of Jesus Christ, the good shepherd. We should never let these two be conflated. We ought never begin to think that our pastor is just a man, with opinions like anyone else, nor should we think that he is perfect and that everything he does must be right. Faithful Catholics in the past 100 years have made both mistakes to their own great harm. If we see our pastor sin, we should not be surprised, since we too sin. He is a man, a sinner like us, called to a ministry higher than that of the angels, so he deserves more respect and obedience from us than we would give to an angel.