A True Shepherd at Last
Fourth Sunday After Easter Year B
A Hebrew Catholic Perspective
St. John 10: 11 — 18
Of all the images of God presented in the Scriptures, that of “the Good Shepherd” seems to have been the most enduring. The Old Testament writers go to great lengths to show that it is one of God’s own favourite titles.
In the lectionary for this week, the Gospel passage is coupled with Ezekiel’s prophesy of the true Shepherd. This was very well known by Jesus’ listeners. When He gave His discourse about the Good Shepherd He drew, without any doubt, on this extremely beautiful text. Let’s take a moment to read this and refresh our memory of the magnificent prophecy it contains.
Ezekiel 34: 11 — 16 They Shall Have A True Shepherd
This is what the Lord God says: I mean to go looking for this flock
of mine, search it out for myself. As a shepherd, when he finds his
flock scattered all about him, goes looking for his sheep, so will I
go looking for these sheep of mine, rescue them from all the
nooks into which they have strayed when the dark mist fell upon
them. Rescued from every kingdom, recovered from every land,
I will bring them back to their own country; they shall have
pasture on the hill-sides of Israel, by its watercourses, in the
resting-places of their home. Yes, I will lead them out into fair
pastures, the high mountains of Israel, with soft grass for them
to rest on, rich feed for them to graze. Food and rest, says the
Lord God, both these I will give to my flock. The lost sheep I will
find, the strayed sheep I will bring home again; bind up the
broken limb, nourish the wasted frame, keep the well-fed and the
sturdy free from harm; they shall have a true Shepherd at last.
Jesus was making a very definite claim: “I am the true shepherd” which the Prophet Ezekiel was describing. When He had finished, half of His listeners, so it seems, looked at each other and declared, “He’s stark raving mad!” Let’s unpack a little of the wealth of meaning it holds for us.
The True Shepherd
In modern times we have a fairly down to earth and far less romantic image in our minds of what a shepherd is and does. Christian art however, has tended to idealise the role and nature of a good shepherd. The image became indelibly stamped in the minds of Jesus’ followers during the first 300 years of indescribable persecution. As one great scholar recorded: “It was sculptured on the walls of sepulchres and catacombs, it was painted in upper chambers and in oratories, it was traced upon their sacred books, it was graven on the vessels of the altar.” (Sadler) Why?
Jesus often emphasised that He was sent to enable people to enjoy fullness of LIFE. He claimed He carried out His mission in obedience to His Father. He concentrated His efforts not according to what people deserved, but according to their needs. The more hopeless they were, the more concern He showed. So He did this not because of people’s merits but because of the mercy of God. The infant Church saw these qualities reflected most in the image of the True Shepherd.
In our short passage, Jesus presents His credentials as He lays claim to this sublime title. First, “I lay down my life for my sheep, and I take it up again, in obedience to my Father”. Secondly, “I know my sheep, and they know me just as the Father and I know each other.” But having said that He is quick to add, “There are other sheep beyond this flock and I must go out to them and lead them home. This I yearn to do.”
Some Reflections on The Text
I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life
for the sheep.
In the earlier part of chapter 10, our Lord has been talking about shepherds and sheepfolds. Now He becomes even more specific in what He says, as His listeners are very familiar with the Biblical imagery He is using. “I am the good shepherd”, He says, and He goes on to outline the duties of a good shepherd rather than his rights. He himself is the model shepherd, concerned more with the needs of His sheep, than His own.
• It is not surprising Jesus takes up the title of Shepherd.
The Son of David, the King who had been a shepherd, was
born in Bethlehem, the city of David, in a cave sheepfold,
and the news of His birth was first manifested to shepherds.
• Shepherds, in contrast to the educated authorities, were
poor, distinctly uneducated and often seen as uncouth or
of insignificant value, by material standards.
• When He refers to himself as “good” shepherd, this is
equivalent to calling Himself the “true” or perfect shepherd.
(It corresponds to the idea of the “true” light in John 1: 9).
He is tapping into a long line of unfolding Biblical revelation.
In Genesis 49: 24, the Lord God is the true Shepherd of Israel
who leads Joseph like a flock (Psalm 80: 2).
• Jesus adds a new dimension to the meaning of the true, or
good shepherd, and gives the first essential characteristic:
willingness to lay down his life for his sheep. Hebrew
shepherds frequently risked their lives for their sheep.
Jesus not only risked His life, He laid it down willingly.
There is a strong emphasis on the value of the individual
sheep to Him; quite unrelated to the commercial value,
(if we keep to the image).
A hired man, who is not a shepherd and whose sheep are
not his own, sees a wolf coming and leaves the sheep and
runs away, and the wolf catches and scatters them.
In the rest of this section of His teaching, Jesus distinguishes Himself from those who may appear to be shepherds but who in fact are not “true” shepherds. So, what is the difference between the “hired hand” and Himself? Ownership! Jesus on several occasions talked of His disciples as those who had been given to Him by His Father. He is talking about a special relationship at a very special level and He would never, ever, ever, abandon His flock. Why? The answer comes at the end of verse 13.
This is because he works for pay and has no concern for
Jesus is devoted to His flock in a loving, affectionate, personal relationship. The hired hand however, “cares nothing” for the sheep. This not only explains why he can abandon the sheep, but also emphasises the point of difference between him and the ideal shepherd.
I am the good shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me,
Again Jesus repeats the key concept: “I am the good shepherd”. He now expands His second claim. He is the true shepherd because He knows His sheep and is known by them. This mutual knowledge gives rise to mutual confidence and willing obedience.
To “know” in the Hebrew, Biblical meaning of the word has several aspects, all of which are active components of that meaning:
• it refers of the knowledge taken in
• it means complete and absolute understanding on God’s part
• it signifies relationship between, or some connection
• it expresses value and importance of what is known
• it suggests approval.
Jesus implies, “I know my sheep — I know and understand their hearts, wishes, purposes, and circumstances. These things are all important to me and I approve of them”.
just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I will
lay down my life for the sheep.
In the same breath, Jesus explains a great treasure of His teaching. The knowledge of sheep and shepherd is an extension of the mutual knowledge of the Father and the Son. So He communicates to His followers His knowledge of the Father. (He is talking of likeness, which is what is important, not equality).
Jesus is talking, in fact about the “fold” of the Holy Trinity — which is the fountain of all pure love and knowledge which God’s creatures have for one another. Life in the Good Shepherd’s flock is indeed God’s way of including us in the mutual love of the Holy Trinity. That is why Jesus quickly adds, “and I lay down my Life for the sheep”. That is, I lay down my life for the sake of this shared existence between sheep and shepherd, Son and Father.
I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These
also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will
be one flock, one shepherd.
But Jesus has the same affection and loving concern for sheep “that are not of this flock”. They are His, just the same. When He says “I must bring them also”, He conveys pressing urgency, depth of concern and equal commitment to satisfying their needs. The way to eternal life is the same for those in or beyond the flock He is talking about: All must have the opportunity to hear Jesus’ voice as the voice of God and respond with faith. When Jesus says, “I must bring them also”, He means impel, not compel; to lead along, to take with one, to bear with. As a shepherd, He leads and does not drive! He is with His flock at all times, and never leaves them unattended. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit this presence is maintained, but at a high cost, as He has twice reminded them. (That is, He laid down His life, of His own free will. No one took it from Him.) This is so important, Jesus repeats it.
Verse 17 and 18
This is why 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 on my own. I have
power to lay it down, and power to take it up again. This
command I have received from my Father.”
Again we are brought back to the mutual love of the Father and Son: and it rests on Jesus’ complete obedience, in laying down His life, taking it up again, and sharing it with His “flock” through the gift of Himself in the spirit. May we also, through the Spirit of Christ, share in the fullness of life which can be ours on account of the dedication of Jesus to God’s holy will. We may find it worthwhile to note specifically where, on several occasions in His teaching, our Lord made it clear that no one takes His life: “I lay down my life in order to take it up again.”
Throughout the two, millennia of the Church, Christians have always rejoiced that Jesus calls people in the first instance not to an ideology, a doctrine, nor a system of thought or even religious practice, important though all of these are. He calls them first to Himself. This unique passage is about our calling to enter into the love and life of the Holy Trinity — model of all true communities.
This is the true fulfilment of all that God has promised His people, and as the Good Shepherd explains, He has been commanded to make sure it happens.
How does this help us to understand Christian Prayer and Meditation?
In this passage, an enormous responsibility is laid on the shoulders of the True Shepherd. There is only one word to indicate the responsibility of those in the shepherd’s care. If the sheep are to belong to His flock; if they are to know the Shepherd, then they must “listen” to His voice.
In this context, it is not the sound to which they must be attuned, but rather to what He is saying!
Prayer and meditation, as taught here, is the ancient and venerable practice of listening to what God says in and through his WORD — and for us that is Jesus: Word made flesh (John 1: 14). This requires disciplined training. It takes time, energy, and talent, however God apportions these to us. We may think we are not very good at it, but there is no command in all Scripture that we must succeed. We are simply called to participate in the mutual loving and knowing of the Father and the Son. This is one of the great treasures of Jesus’ teaching. This is prayer supreme, and every Christian is invited to take their place in it. All may. All can — if they listen.
We invite you to browse through our sections called “Scripture Meditation” which can help develop the skills of listening in prayer and meditation.
We close with the personal reflection of a very fine writer.
A Personal Reflection
M. F. Sadler
The Truth has said of Himself, “I am the good shepherd.”
All love, care, providence, devotion, watchfulness, that is in earth
or in heaven, in the ministry of men or of angels, is but a reflection
or participation of that which is in Him. Surely but the vision of His
presence in heaven can exceed the revelation of Himself. These
words have taken so deep a hold of the hearts of His people, that
from the beginning they passed into a common title for their
exalted Head. It was the symbol under which, in times of
persecution, His Presence was shadowed forth. It was sculptured
on the walls of sepulchres and catacombs, it was painted in upper
chambers and in oratories, it was traced upon their sacred books,
it was graven on the vessels of the altar. The image of The Good
Shepherd has expressed, as in a parable, all their deepest affections,
fondest musings, most docile obedience, most devoted trust. It is
a title in which all other titles meet, in the light of which they blend
and lose themselves: Priest, Prophet, King, Saviour, and Guide are
all summed up in this one — more than royal, paternal, saving Name.
It recalls in one word all the mercies and loving-kindness of God to
His people of old, when the Shepherd of Israel made His own people
‘to go forth like sheep, and guided them in the wilderness like a flock’.
(Manning) From “The Commentary on St. John”
By M.F Sadler (George Bell & Sons 1883)
Blessed be the Holy Name of God!
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(Mark 16: 15)
Let us remember God’s Teaching, contained in His Word and in doing so,
A True Shepherd At Last
Fourth Sunday of Easter Year B St. John 10: 11 — 18
1 Never before, nor since, has anyone made the following statement (verses 14 and 15):
“Just as the Father knows me and I know the Father,
This is a highly privileged relationship which came to be one of the major features of the Christian message to the world in which Christianity first emerged. The Biblical sense of the word “knowing” includes the closest intimacy and union available to those involved. Christ’s followers were therefore the channel via which newcomers to the Body of Christ — the Church — were drawn into a powerful, mutual attraction: loving and belonging to one another. Nothing could halt the growth of this amazing Body of people — not even the cruel, oppressive and unbelievably overpowering force of the Roman Empire, which eventually gave up all resistance to the unstoppable Christians.
This knowledge Jesus talks about is freely available to all His members if they are prepared to toss aside their own plans, agendas, demands and expectations, and begin humbly to explore what He has truly taught. It is not easy, but we must approach the task humbly and be very aware of any bias we have developed over the years and let this be open to scrutiny in the light of the Holy Spirit.
2 “There will be one flock and one Shepherd”
But, explains Jesus, they must listen to His voice and follow where He leads —
3 Jesus has the power to lay down His life without anyone taking it from Him. He also has
“This command I have received from my Father.”
Even Jesus obeys the Divine Will and models for us the way towards a loving, intimate, life-filled relationship with God.
Sheep must listen and obey by following every step appointed for them. In our own situation, failure to do so will see us confused, rapidly losing confidence in the Lord who seems more and more remote from us, as well as from the world. In truth it would then be we who are distant from Him and His ways.
An Easter Prayer (St. John 10: 11 — 18)
Lord Jesus, You say, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down-his life for his sheep.” You have proved Your claim to be a good shepherd in the best possible way: You have given Your life for us. The memory of that Friday is still alive. “Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit,” You said, and bowing Your head, You expired. The Good Shepherd lays down His life for His sheep.
There is another mark of a good shepherd: he knows each of his sheep by name, and they know him. You also make this claim: “I am the good shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me, even as the Father knows me and I know the Father.”
Lord Jesus, I cannot fully understand You without a thorough knowledge of what You mean when You say, “I know”. Someone has said that to know means “to understand, to have confidence in, to love, to live for”. You say that You know us, Your sheep. That means that You understand us; You understand everything about us, our potentiality for good and for evil.
In spite of that understanding, You seem to have confidence in us, for You put Your shepherding into our hands. Surely You have shown that You love us — that is really what this image of the Shepherd means. And You wouldn’t be our Good Shepherd if You hadn’t risen to live for and in us.
“I know mine ….. .” Now You can really fulfill Your vocation as shepherd who gathers His flock around Him to feed them and unify them and give them a chance to know You. For is that not eternal life, to know You and Your Father?
“Mine know me …… .” We do not do nearly as well as You. I think I understand You better now that Lent and Holy Week are over; and my understanding will grow with the meditation of these gospels and the year-by-year living of Your Church Year. And nothing helps more than Easter to deepen my confidence in You. So also nothing helps more than the Eucharist, “Your Easter Sacrament,” to increase my love for You. If that love is tainted with self-interest, I do want it purified.
LIVING FOR JESUS
I have gone through a kind of dying, too, during Lent and Holy Week. Of course, it wasn’t very painful, but I have at least tried and wanted to share Your sacrificial will. And I have risen with You at Easter. Now only one thing remains: to live for You by prayer and action so that the ultimate desire of Your Good Shepherd heart may be gratified: that there may be one flock and one shepherd.
If there is anything that describes You, it is that last sentence. You are the Saviour of men, of all men. You gave Your life for all. You are distressed at the vast number of non-believers and still more at the division among us Christians. What You began on Calvary and Easter must continue. And You have chosen us — at all levels of Your Church ― to finish Your work.
Perhaps this is the final mark of Your love for us: Your knowing us, Your having confidence in us, Your giving us the blessed responsibility of bringing other sheep to You as tokens of our love for You. “O God, my God, to You do I watch at the break of day: and in Your Name I will lift up my hands, “Halleluia!” Amen. Come Lord Jesus!
Based on “Meditating the Gospels” by Emeric Lawrence, O.S.B.
John 10: 11 — 18
Fourth Sunday of Easter Year B
11 I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life
12 A hired man, who is not a shepherd and whose sheep are
13 This is because he works for pay and has no concern for
14 I am the good shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me,
15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I will
16 I have other sheep 7 that do not belong to this fold. These
17 This is why the Father loves me, because I lay down my
18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have
7  Other sheep: the Gentiles, possibly a reference to “God’s dispersed children” of ⇒ John 11:52 destined to be gathered into one, or “apostolic Christians” at odds with the community of the beloved disciple.
8  Power to take it up again: contrast the role of the Father as the efficient cause of the resurrection in ⇒ Acts 2:24; ⇒ 4:10; etc.; ⇒ Romans 1:4; ⇒ 4:24. Yet even here is added: This command I have received from my Father.
Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised