Fourth Sunday of Easter A
The Good Shepherd and the Hireling
Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away– and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.” John 10:11-18
We listen to the Gospel stories we understand and see, even if only “through a glass darkly”, as St. Paul describes it, the mystery of God and the mystery that defines us as human beings. Jesus is the key Who unlocks both these mysteries. As we engage Him and are engaged by Him we are readied to respond to God and to life ever more deeply and completely.
What Jesus says about Himself and how he identifies Himself are crucial to this key being of service to us. John, the evangelist, puts seven “I Am” declarations into the mouth of Jesus. With these John begs us to sit up and take notice of the faith of the first believers, and to believe and respond in kind. We remember the words of the risen Jesus to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” Do we want to be numbered among those so blessed?
Today’s gospel is a response to the people who gathered around Jesus and asked him, “How long are you going to keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, the Messiah, tell us plainly. Tell us who you are?”
Jesus responds, “I am the Good Shepherd.”
What do we make of this “I Am” declaration? Is this merely a beautiful metaphor that can produce rich, endearing and enduring visual images? It certainly has served that purpose in the tradition for these past 2000 plus years. The icon of the Good Shepherd carrying a lamb draped about His shoulders is the earliest representation of Jesus. It was etched onto the walls of the catacombs, and to this day what believer’s heart is not warmed by this representation of Christ? But to the Judeans it was a bold, provocative, and even dangerously, blasphemous, affirmation.
When Jesus said, “I am the good Shepherd”, the people could not have helped but call to mind, a passage from the Prophet Ezechiel, in which God says, “I, Myself, will be the Shepherd”.
When Jesus used the metaphor of the shepherd and the sheep, He used one with a rich history that was deeply woven into the thought and sacred language of His people. Again and again, in the Hebrew scriptures God is spoken of as the Shepherd of His people.
The much-loved 23rd Psalm begins, “The Lord is my Shepherd.”
In Psalm 79 it is written, “We your people, the flock of your pasture, will give you thanks forever.”
Psalm 80 addresses God, “Listen, O Shepherd of Israel.”
The allusion is strengthened in Psalm 95, “For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.”
For the prophet Isaiah, God is the gentle and loving Shepherd: “He will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms, He will carry them in his bosom and gently lead those that are with young.”
Lastly, in the Book of the prophet Ezechiel we are told that the Messiah, will be the Shepherd of the people: “I will set over them one shepherd and he shall feed them.”
The people asked Jesus, “Tell us plainly.” And so when Jesus responded to them, by saying, “I am the Good Shepherd”, He was saying something very clear and very defining about Himself. He is saying that He is God, that He is the Messiah, and that God desires a very special relationship with each of us as individuals and all of us as a community.
We can take this image of the Good Shepherd and run with it in any number of directions. We can highlight any of the many facets that reflect the nature of a shepherd, the nature of sheep, and the nature of that relationship that seems to adhere between shepherd and sheep.
I would like us to focus for a moment on what I believe is the most awesome and most compelling truth embodied in this metaphor of the Good Shepherd. It is about a relationship that is grounded in the deepest expression of committed love. When Jesus identifies himself as the Shepherd He is expressing God’s desire to live in a committed relationship with us.
We once placed a great premium on committed relationships, as opposed to the casual relationships that seem to be the fare of the present time. But deep down we know that life, and the relationships in which life finds it’s ground, meaning and purpose do not work without commitment. And that life without commitment quickly descends to emptiness and even chaos.
Jesus builds no escape clause into this relationship. Jesus says that, “the Good Shepherd is the Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.” If each of us, for a moment, can identify someone for whom we would give our life, then we have the capacity to grasp with our minds and to hold in our hearts the contours of this extraordinarily intimate and secure bond that God sees fit to propose, establish and maintain without compromise.
Listen again to what Jesus says about the relationship to which He binds Himself: “My sheep belong to me. My sheep hear my voice. I know them. They follow me. I give them eternal life, they shall never perish, no one shall snatch them away.”
Though I don’t know the way, and though I do know that the way can be treacherous, I, nevertheless, also know that I am safe and utterly secure cradled in His arms.
What are the possibilities in terms of our response to God’s proposal? We can run for the hills. We can play games. We can stay in the game only as long as it suits us, or we can allow ourselves to be continually inspired and formed by its possibilities as evidenced in the lives of other notable sheep in the flock, who have gone before us.
By our baptism we belong to and come from a family that numbers countless women and men who have responded and are responding to God with commitment in kind. In the Book of Revelations we read, “Who are these clothe in white robes, and whence have they come? These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Today, so many of the first responders come to mind.
These are our brothers and sisters, who have shared and do share the life of faith with us. Will we allow ourselves the gift of realizing our connection with these holy people? They give us a challenging heritage and a rich legacy. They provide us a standard to which we are all being given the grace to rise.
Into the façade of most cathedrals are sculpted images of those faithful sheep that have led the way. I believe that each of us has been gifted with love enough to give our life. I believe that each of us has the capacity to respond with this kind of commitment to the Good Shepherd. I believe that the flock is at its best, and each of us is at our best, when we allow ourselves to pasture and to feed upon an enduring relationship with He who is the Good Shepherd.
And finally I believe that we are called by the Good Shepherd to be good shepherds in kind to each other and most especially to those who are most vulnerable. We are to protect and defend the poor, the marginalized, the different other and the stranger.
In His presentation of Himself as the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for His sheep, Jesus compares His commitment to that of the hired hand, who He says has no real concern for the sheep and abandons them whenever it appears expedient.
Since the beginning of this pandemic, the hireling, who was charged with the care of all the people, has demonstrated, at nearly every turn, that he really only cares for himself and what serves his personal and political interests. Last week he ran away, like a hireling does, from the truth-seeking questions that the press was asking.
He reliably and consistently deploys his preferred strategies of engendering chaos and division when the nation and the world require clarity and unity. There is no end to his readiness to lay blame anywhere and to avoid taking responsibility everywhere.
The WHO is not the enemy. It is a multilateral organization that makes the difference between life and death for millions of people living in unspeakable poverty and without access to even the basics of health care all over the world. Unilateralism only serves the virus and not its defeat. To withdraw participation and support from the WHO is unconscionable, and to do so, at this juncture, is criminally reprehensible.
If we insist on laying claim to our being the greatest nation in the world then we must demonstrate the greatest compassion and certainly not the greatest indifference to poor nations. Even if only from a selfish point of view, it does not take rocket science to understand that if the virus finds a supportive breeding ground in those nations that do not have the infrastructure and resources to suppress it, it will find there a springboard for continuing its assault everywhere.
The administration clearly failed in its responsibility to take this pandemic seriously enough and early enough. It was never a hoax. Sixty thousand dead people say otherwise. Any attempt to lay blame for this failure on others could be laughable, if it were not also so criminally negligent. Adding insult to injury, not devising and implementing a plan for broad testing and contact tracing, and shifting blame for its absence and responsibility for its set up to the states is another gross dereliction of responsibility.
Lastly, the underbelly of our economic system has been dramatically exposed by the pandemic. The emperor and band of thieves that would govern us have no clothes. Ours is an economic system that protects and insures a carefree and delightful life for the privileged few and leaves the majority in fear for their survival within a few weeks of the plug being pulled.
Any token increase in the minimum wage, which is never easily won and is so fiercely resisted by too many fat politicians, will never be the solution. We must jettison the ruse of the minimum wage and demand and embrace and never again settle for anything less than a living wage for all. Yes, a living wage would seriously reduce the profit margin for the few but, it would allow the majority to survive a rainy day, such as the one that has befallen us.
There is the Good Shepherd and the hireling. Whose voice will command our attention? Whose voice will we hear? Whose voice will we listen to? God’s will is that as one flock under One Shepherd we might move beyond charity and establish systemic justice and universal health care.
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
May 3, 2020