NB: Homily on Palm Sunday, Easter, Second and Third Sunday of Easter, go to Recent Posts.
Acts 13:14, 43-52; Revelation 7:9, 14b-17; John 10:27-30
Good Shepherd Sunday is the Fourth Sunday of Easter in our new Catholic liturgical calendar. The name derives from the gospel readings on this day which are taken from the 10th chapter of John. In recent times this day has also become known as Vocations Sunday, a day on which prayers should be said for vocations to the priesthood and religious life. The image of the shepherd and his sheep is very old in Scripture. We have the popular images of Jesus the Good Shepherd. In some we see Jesus holding a sheep/lamb over his shoulders, holding the two front legs of the lamb/sheep in his right hand and the two rear legs in his left hand. Or we have a smiling Jesus sitting under a tree, with a cute little lamb on his lap. This image of the shepherd appeals to us because of the tenderness of Jesus, his care for the lamb/sheep and his compassion. A shepherd in those days didn’t walk behind the flock beating them with a stick to keep them moving. He walked in front of them, seeking out a safe path to food and water and shelter. The sheep followed him, because they recognized his voice, and they trusted him. Jesus tells us that are the kind of Good Shepherd he is. He leads, and we follow.
When we see this image our minds naturally begin to wander and we realize its personal meaning for us. We are that lamb or sheep who is being carried by Jesus on his shoulders. Such an image is reassuring for us as Jesus is always our support on our journey through life. When we face difficult problems or crosses come our way or some personal disasters occurs the presence of Jesus the Good Shepherd reassures us that we are not abandoned, that Jesus is supporting and holding us up. This is portrayed very beautifully in the Footprints poem which concludes in this way: “I have noticed that during the most trying periods of my life there has only been one set of footprints in the sand. Why, when I needed you most, have you not been there for me?” The Lord replied, “The years when you have seen only one set of footprints, my child, is when I carried you.” Again Psalm 23 reads: “The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want. Fresh and green are the pastures where He leads me repose … Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff – they comfort me.’ This in fact tells us who Jesus is and who we are all called to be.
The First Reading taken from the Acts of the Apostles, tells us how some of the people from the house of Israel were rejecting the grace of God and the mission to the gentiles starts. We have a brief description of the work of Paul in Antioch and Pisidia along with Barnabas during the first missionary journey. They preached as usual on the Sabbath day to the Jewish community there. The gentiles were also present and the Jews were jealous of the group. Consequently, Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, that the word of God was brought first to them the chosen people. Since they have rejected it the apostles were ready to move towards the Gentiles. Quoting Prophet Isaiah, Paul speaks of the universal mission to bring salvation to the ends of the earth. When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and praised the word of the Lord; and as many as had been destined for eternal life became believers.” When the Jewish nation rejected Christ as the Messiah, over and above opening the door to our salvation, they consequently placed themselves on an equal basis with us as Gentiles. By the grace of our Lord, those of us who have answered divine call to be saved have become one spiritual nation of God, without discrimination of nationality, race, culture, gender or age.
The Second Reading taken from the Book of Revelation, tells us of another vision of John in which he sees a countless number of saints who have earned heaven through martyrdom and are now serving God’s throne adoring him and rejoicing. They will not suffer and grieve again as they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Those persons who wear the white garments represent all the Christians who have been chosen by God; those who wear the white garments, they are the living saints who form the fullness of the mystical Body of Christ. The vision of John tells us that no matter how much suffering it may refer to, it is important for us to understand that it ends with a divine hope and promise. These persons have won the victory over their enemies. There will come a time when we will no longer hunger or thirst. The sun will no longer strike us, or any of its scorching heat. The Lamb shall be our Shepherd and He will guide us to the springs of the water of life. And God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.
During today’s Gospel Reading Jesus uses the image of the Shepherd and the sheep. The relationship between the shepherd and the sheep is so intimate that it is an extension of the relationship between the Heavenly Father and the Son. We heard the words of Jesus: “My sheep hear my voice and follow me.” In this particular passage from the Gospel of John, Jesus was speaking of His Divine title as the Good Shepherd. The sheep listen to and recognise the voice of their shepherd and that is why they continue to follow him rather than another. It is important for us also to recognise the voice of Jesus as it comes to us in our daily life. Earlier in the same Chapter, Jesus had said, “I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Since Jesus is the Good Shepherd and not a hired hand, he does not run away when the wolf comes, instead he is ready to give his life for his sheep. On the other hand the hired person runs away when the wolf comes, leaving the sheep in danger. Jesus the Good Shepherd shepherded to the point of giving his life for his sheep, dying on the cross for the sake of humanity. The Good Shepherd became the Lamb of God to take away the blemish of the world.
Jesus as a shepherd shows a deep sense of commitment and responsibility towards his own. He is a leader who is concerned about the other and hence there is the attractiveness in him. Secondly there is the knowledge of the shepherd. Every good shepherd knows that his sheep knows him and he knows his own sheep. There is the mutual understanding and love between them. This mutual bond of love and intimacy is often compared to the mutual relationship between Jesus and his Father. The shepherd knows his sheep and the sheep acknowledges its shepherd. Thirdly, the good shepherd deeply desires that many other sheep should come to identify themselves with him. This in fact is the call of the kingdom of God that there may be one flock and one shepherd.” In this sense an invitation for the universe to be united together with its God and Lord. Finally the good shepherd wishes to lay down his life for the sheep. We have a God who is ready to die for others and Jesus emphasizes that, in giving his life for his sheep, he is doing so of his own will. His death is to be the living proof that “the greatest love a person can show is to give one’s life for one’s friends”. This is the proof that Jesus truly is a Good Shepherd.
The readings of today are intimately linked with the second theme of this Sunday. Not only is it Good Shepherd Sunday, it is also “Vocations Sunday”. On this day we are especially asked first of all to pray that the Church may be provided with the leaders needed to do its work of spreading the Gospel. We know that at the present time there is a critical shortage of such leaders, at least in the traditional sense – priests and religious. But, while we may earnestly pray that our Church is supplied with the leaders it needs, not merely as priests and religious but lay persons who would lead people to God. At the same time we must be clear of the term vocation. We have for too long given a much too narrow meaning to the word ‘vocation’. We tend to limit it to a calling to be a priest or a member of a religious institute. But, in fact, every single one of us has a vocation, as we are being called by God to be spouses, parents, teachers, doctors, and civil servants, running a business, salespersons… or whatever. That is the calling which demands fidelity to God and to the task personally chosen. God is calling every single one of us to work for the Gospel.
As we celebrate Good Shepherd Sunday, let us pray to the Lord that we may be His good sheep, listening attentively to His voice, and follow His example of self-giving love. Let us also pray for all our shepherds, especially our religious and political leaders. May they follow the example of Jesus who was willing to serve and lay down His life for His sheep. Jesus our Shepherd is the Way, Truth and Life. He is the one who goes after the lost sheep leaving the ninety-nine to bring it back to the fold. Today let us pray for vocations to the priesthood and religious life, that many will be inspired to show true love, to the point of sacrificing many other attractive options to become priests of Jesus, to follow him in religious life.
Fr Eugene Lobo SJ, Rome.