Acts 4.5-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3.16-end; John 10.11-18
IN THIS Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus takes a familiar image and transforms it. In any other context, the death of a shepherd would lead to the scattering of the flock. Only this shepherd can say of his life, “I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.” Christ not only dies to save his flock, but rises to gather them again and lead them to life in all its fullness.
In declaring himself to be the “good shepherd”, Jesus identifies himself as the fulfilment of God’s promise made through the prophecy of Ezekiel. After a condemnation of “false shepherds” who enrich themselves at the expense of the sheep, God says that “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep.” He promises to feed them on “rich pasture”, and “with justice” (Ezekiel 34.11-16).
In our psalm, as in Ezekiel’s prophecy, the image of shepherding is “pervaded with political nuance” (Walter Bruggemann and William Bellinger, Cambridge New Bible Commentary: Psalms). It asserts the sovereignty of the Lord, not only over the false shepherds of Israel, but also over the kings of the nations that surround it.
Like Ezekiel, the Psalmist speaks of the Lord as leading his sheep to pasture. He elaborates this with the image of God’s “spreading a table before me” so that “my cup shall be full”. In the paschal mystery, Jesus both fulfils and exceeds these promises. As Benedict XVI writes, in feeding his sheep “Jesus does not give something, but rather he gives himself. That is how he gives us life” (Jesus of Nazareth: From the baptism in the Jordan to the transfiguration). Read in this light, the psalm has an obviously eucharistic resonance. St Eusebius of Caesarea writes that “here plainly the holy sacrifices of Christ’s table are meant.”
Jesus’s relationship with his flock, therefore, goes far beyond protection. Its goal is communion. Jesus draws a parallel with his own relationship with the Father: “I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father.”
Jesus develops the shepherding metaphor by contrasting his sacrificial care with the attitude of the “hired hand” who has no such concern for the flock. Because such a false shepherd “does not own the sheep”, when the wolf comes he “leaves the sheep and runs away”.
Jean Vanier offers a description of such “false shepherds” which resonates across the centuries — both within and beyond the Church. They “use people because of their need to have power and control over them, and to prove that they are superior”; they “hide behind rules and regulations” and “are hard on weaker people, and lack compassion” (Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John). Their aim is the external rewards of wealth and status, not the well-being of the flock.
Our epistle makes clear that every Christian is called to share in the Good Shepherd’s sacrificial care: “He laid down his life for us — and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” The writer goes on to draw out practical implications. We cannot “abide in God’s love” if we have “the world’s goods” and yet fail to offer them to a brother or sister who is in need.
In every generation, there is a conflict between false shepherds and those who show this sacrificial care. Our reading from Acts speaks of one such confrontation. The mention of the names of Annas and Caiaphas connects this struggle to Jesus’s own trial and crucifixion. As the conflict intensifies, the apostles will come to imitate the Good Shepherd in their deaths as in their lives.
In the face of such hostility, it is easy to become defensive and inward-looking. Yet Jesus’s discourse on shepherding points his hearers beyond the existing flock: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.”
The one who has laid down his life for this flock has also laid it down for the world. His gift of life is intended for all. This is why the Church in Acts turns outwards in witness to the name of Jesus, even in the face of persecution; “for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved”.