Fourth Sunday of Easter

FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER                                                                       April 13, 2008

Readings:  Acts 2:14a.36-41;    1 Peter 2:20b-25;    John 10:1-10

This Sunday is commonly known as “Good Shepherd Sunday”.  It is also known as “Vocations Sunday”, a day when the Christian community prays for good vocations. They are like shepherds to take care of people. The image of God as the shepherd of his people has a long tradition in the history of God’s people.  We have it in the Old testament and the New Testament.  It is one that would be immediately understood by the people of the time. The shepherd of the Biblical Middle East had a much more intimate relationship with a much smaller flock.  He would bring them out to pasture each day and spend all his time with them.  In the evening he would bring them back to the enclosure where they would be safe from wild animals.  He knew each one individually and would notice immediately if even one was missing.  He could call each by name.  Jesus uses this imagery to show how much he cares for his people and is concerned about his people.

There are several references to sheep and shepherds in the Synoptic gospels.  In the Gospel of Mark, we read Jesus being deeply moved by compassion because the crowd was “like sheep without a shepherd”. In Luke we see him as one who goes in search of the lost sheep.  In Matthew, he speaks of false prophets, who are really wolves, but come in sheep’s clothing.  In the final judgment, the good and bad are identified with sheep and goats respectively. In the Gospel of John we see him as the Good Shepherd caring for his sheep.

In the Old Testament we have the passage in Ezekiel where the shepherds of Israel are condemned for their betrayal of their responsibilities and where God himself promises to take over the gentle care of his flock. Through his compassionate care of them, God’s people “will know that I, the Lord their God, am with them, and that they, the house of Israel, are my people…  And you are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture, and I am your God, says the Lord God”. There is the personal care of God towards his people.

In today’s Gospel passage, which consists of the first 10 verses of Chapter 10, there seem to be two separate parables.  Indeed this passage has the personal approach and the Jews would have understood it easily. The first is a warning against stealing the sheep and the second indicates a fond relationship between the sheep and their shepherd.  The central image is that of the caring shepherd.  In fact, later on in the passage, Jesus says, “I AM the Gate”.  The early church would have seen Jesus as the Gate of the sheepfold, while the shepherds are pastors who are faithful to Jesus.  Anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate, or through Jesus and avoids the right path, is dangerous and should be avoided.  He is “a thief and a brigand” who comes to harm the sheep.  The genuine shepherd, however, enters by the Gate through Jesus.  He is recognized and admitted by the watchman at the gate.

Then is the recognition and acceptance of the Shepherd. The sheep hear and recognise the shepherd’s voice.  In the Jewish tradition all the sheep were placed in one sheepfold. Of the many shepherds, the true shepherd knows which ones belong to him.  He calls them out one by one and they follow him and not any one else.  It is a free supportive and affective relationship.  The sheep go in and out.  They follow, not because they are forced to but by their own choice.  When the shepherd has brought out his sheep to pasture, he leads them and they follow because “they know his voice”.  They will not follow a stranger but run away from him, because they do not recognise his voice.

The Gospel tells us that the disciples failed to understand the meaning of this parable.  So Jesus patiently explains.  He is the Gate of the sheepfold.  Those who enter the sheepfold by any other way are not to be trusted; they are “thieves and brigands”.  And the sheep will ignore them.  “Anyone who enters through the Gate will be safe.”  Jesus finally says: “I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.”  To follow Jesus is to live to the full.  It is to live our human life, to the greatest possible extent.  As one writer puts it, “The Gospel is a statement about how human life is best lived.”  The same writer also says, “Life with God is good for human beings and should be seen to be so.” 

Today is Vocations Sunday.  It is obvious that our Church today is in great need of good shepherds, totally committed to the Way of Jesus.  We are asked to pray today especially that our Christian communities will be graced with good shepherds and pastors.  It is a pity that we tend to narrow the term “vocation” to those who feel called to the priesthood or what we call ‘religious’ life. Yet we need to emphasize very strongly that every single baptized person has a ‘vocation’.  Everyone is called by God to play a specific role in the Christian community and in the wider community.  Unless we Christians see that ‘vocation’ is something that we are all called to, it is not likely that there will be enough people to meet the service needs of our Christian communities.  Our Christian communities can only grow and thrive when every member makes a contribution to the well-being of the whole.

Unless we Christians see that ‘vocation’ as something that we are all called to respond to, it is not likely that there will be enough people to respond to the service needs of our Christian communities and, by extension, the needs of the wider community.   Today we are asked to “pray” for vocations.  To say this prayer with sincerity involves my reflecting on how God is asking me to make a meaningful contribution of myself (not just money) to the building up of our community.

Fr Eugene Lobo SJ

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