THIS Sunday’s reading from Revelation describes the “Lamb at the centre of the throne” as the “shepherd” of the saints. The claim is paradoxical: we expect shepherds to protect their flock, and, in most circumstances, the death of the shepherd will leave the flock more vulnerable to predators. But it is precisely by offering himself as a sacrificial lamb that Christ delivers us from the power of sin and death, leading us to eternal life.
Precisely because their shepherd is the lamb, the followers of Christ walk a path that is both cruciform and life-giving. The saints have shared in his paschal victory, through the “great ordeal” in which they “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb”. In every age, the Church as Christ’s mystical body shares in the suffering of her head. As Joseph Mangina observes: “In many places of the world, the bodies of Christians continue to be a site of contestation between the present and the coming aeons. . . We may conveniently ignore this fact but only at the cost of ignoring the one who claims the martyr’s bodies as his own” (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Revelation).
The identity of shepherd and lamb is also a central theme of John 10. Earlier in the chapter, Jesus has declared himself to be the “Good Shepherd” who lays down his life for the sheep. In this Sunday’s passage, we see the growing shadows of the cross on his ministry. St Thomas Aquinas ascribes a mystical as well as literal meaning to the Evangelist’s statement that “it was winter.” It indicates, he says, the frozen hearts of those who are listening to Jesus. Their request for Jesus to declare “plainly” whether he is the Messiah is insincere. “They hoped by this to obtain grounds for accusing him before Pilate for inciting sedition and making himself king — which was in opposition to Caesar and offensive to the Romans,” and, as he observes, it is the claim that Jesus is king which “swayed Pilate against Christ”.
Jesus sees that the intellectual arguments his opponents offer are masking a more fundamental decision of the heart. Earlier in the Gospel, we are told that, when God’s light enters the world, people’s responses reveal their interior state: “This is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil” (3.19). Here, too, this is the basis for Jesus’ condemnation of his opponents: they do not hear his voice because they are not among his sheep.
Like our reading from Revelation, this passage contains a message of reassurance for readers who are experiencing persecution and rejection for their faithful witness. Whatever is done to them by the world, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”
This same promise stands at the heart of this Sunday’s psalm. It contrasts God’s shepherding of his flock with that of other leaders, in Israel and its neighbours. Such figures prey on their people rather than leading them in the paths of righteousness and blessing.
The Psalmist has an abundance of images for the care offered by the true Shepherd in the face of trials: leading the Psalmist to “still waters” (an image echoed in Revelation 7.17), spreading a table before him “in the presence of those who trouble [him],” anointing his head with oil, and giving him a cup which “overflows” (as the NRSV renders it).
Aquinas writes that this “table” is an allegory of both the “sacramental table” that we share in the Church, and the “table of our homeland” — that is, the eternal feast of heaven. Just as Christ feeds us with himself in the eucharist, so the “future kindness” to which we look forward is “the enjoyment of God himself”. He is both gift and giver.
Read in its original context, Psalm 23 is an “answering word of deliverance to the mournful cry of distress in Psalm 22” (Ellen Charry, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Psalms 1-50). At Calvary, however, that “cry of distress” is found on the lips of the Lord himself. It is through the desolation of the cross that Christ protects and nourishes his people. When he “spreads a table” before us, he feeds us with this self-offering — both our Shepherd, and the sacrificial Lamb.