Monday of the Fourth Week of Easter
I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.John 10:11
This is the ultimate criterion for recognizing the good shepherd. In need of nothing, the divine shepherd empties himself completely and gives himself as food and drink to feed his flock. The sheep are not a source of sustenance for him.
Ezekiel prophesied against the bad shepherds of Israel, the background of Jesus’ parable;
Woe to the shepherds of Israel who have been pasturing themselves! Should not shepherds pasture the flock? You consumed milk, wore wool, and slaughtered fatlings, but the flock you did not pasture. You did not strengthen the weak nor heal the sick nor bind up the injured. You did not bring back the stray or seek the lost but ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered for lack of a shepherd, and became food for all the wild beasts. They were scattered and wandered over all the mountains and high hills; over the entire surface of the earth my sheep were scattered. No one looked after them or searched for them.Ezekiel 34:2-6
Sheep have a poor sense of direction and easily get lost. Without a shepherd, they can wander aimlessly away from the pasture into a desolate wasteland with no food or water. In Ezekiel’s prophecy, the false shepherds not only neglect the sheep, but abuse them for their own profit.
“Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever does not enter a sheepfold through the gate but climbs over elsewhere is a thief and a robber. But whoever enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens it for him, and the sheep hear his voice, as he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.John 10:1-3
Middle Eastern sheepfolds had only one door or gate into an enclosure made of stones, wood or thickets which kept out wolves and other wild beasts. The shepherd guarded the entrance to protect his flock. In communal sheepfolds, several flocks were entrusted to a gatekeeper who knew each of the shepherds. A thief would have to avoid the gatekeeper and find another way into the enclosure.
Who is the gatekeeper? Commentators both modern and patristic have offered various possibilities: the Father, Christ, the Holy Spirit, Moses, or even an angel. The main point is that the good shepherd is authentic and trustworthy.
When he has driven out all his own, he walks ahead of them, and the sheep follow him, because they recognize his voice. But they will not follow a stranger; they will run away from him, because they do not recognize the voice of strangers.”John 10:4-5
In a communal sheepfold, how does the shepherd lead out his own sheep from among the mingled flocks? Sheep have poor depth perception in their vision, but their sense of hearing is keen. They recognize the voice of their shepherd and can distinguish it from the voice of strangers. Sheep that do not belong to the shepherd will not follow his voice out of the fold.
Although Jesus used this figure of speech, they did not realize what he was trying to tell them. So Jesus said again, “Amen, amen, I say to you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them.John 10:6-8
Communication of divine truths in words and figures rarely met with deep understanding in Jesus’ audience. Christ is both shepherd and gate. Elsewhere he is also the “lamb led to slaughter or a sheep silent before shearers” (Isaiah 53:7). Images and words coalesce to illuminate transcendent realities. Simultaneously shepherd, sheep, and gate, Christ is creation’s origin, way of return, and end.
The false shepherds plunder the sheep; their voices are rejected.
I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy; I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.John 10:9-10
The good shepherd not only guards his flock from harm, he puts himself in harm’s way to the point of death. The Son of God alone can freely lay down his life in order to take it up again (John 10:17-18). All other shepherds must answer to the chief Shepherd and receive sustenance from him for others (1 Peter 5:2-4).
I am the good shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I will lay down my life for the sheep.John 10:14-15
The relationship of the good shepherd to his sheep is elevated to the divine communion of the Father and the Son. The role of the patriarchs and prophets of the Old Covenant came to its fulfillment with the coming of Christ, the way to the Father.
I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd.John 10:16
Christ is the universal Shepherd who leads both Jews and Gentiles home to the Father.