The gospel story this week is the first half of the good shepherd discourse in John's gospel. To say there is a good shepherd assumes that other shepherds exist. John's literary method sets up contrasting images in his discussions, Light and dark, sight and blindness, good and bad are only a few of the contrasting images John uses. Such contrasts highlight the tension posed by Jesus as the Christ: Who is this Jesus and why has he come?
The problem for many people is this: If Jesus comes in the image of the good shepherd, then we must come in the image of sheep. Most of us find this distasteful. If we are compared to sheep, then we realize the comparison is less than flattering. Most images of sheep, outside children's nursery rhymes--about Mary and her little lamb--are not very positive. Sheep are smelly, stupid and unmotivated. There seems to be little creativity in their species. Besides that, they are always at risk. Wolves lurk. Sheep must be protected and led to water. We have a problem seeing ourselves as sheep.
Could it be that we resent the comparison because it contains an element of truth? Left to their own devises sheep wander from the flock by grazing away. Eating from one clump of grass to another, they are eventually separated from the rest of the flock. Whether they panic or not is a matter of conjecture. No nefarious plan to escape responsibility seems present; they merely wander from the flock, distracted in self-absorbed grazing.
Most of us, like sheep, left to our own devises, do not want to "have erred and strayed from the ways like lost sheep...following the desires of our own hearts." Or stomachs. Most of us are neither really good or really bad. We simply forget what is often in our own self-interest. We can become distracted. We get lost to God's ability alone to provide for us. We need what Scripture calls shepherding. We need more than a good border collie. This fact may not be flattering, but it's accurate, at least according to the thinking of the author of the gospel.
When John tells us that Jesus says he is the door of the sheep or that the sheep know his voice, John is suggesting that Jesus is the one who loves the sheep beyond any hireling's capacity. If and when this realization breaks through, then the sheep have been given the gift of abundant life. John suggests that there will be competing voices calling for the sheep's allegiance, but Jesus' voice is the authentic voice of the good shepherd.
Easter is about acceptance of a gift that we humans cannot bestow on ourselves. The good shepherd and the promise of resurrection are constant reminders that God is faithful to his promises.
From Hilary Hayden, "Serving the Word," Homily Service 38.5 (April 2005): 25-26. Hilary formerly served as an associate editor of Homily Service. He is a monk of St. Anselm's Abbey in Washington, D.C.