John 10:1-10, Fourth Sunday Of Easter
This Sunday is often called the “Good Shepherd Sunday”. We have recited the much loved Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd” and in the Gospel, Jesus speaks about himself as shepherd and about us as his sheep whom he loves so much and for whom he cares so much. Even though not many in this country have seen a flock of sheep with a shepherd, we can easily understand what Jesus means with this image: He leads us to verdant pastures where the food is ample and of the best quality. He wants us to thrive, not survive, so that the world might be able to see where abundant life is to be found.
The atheist philosopher of the 19th century, Friedrich Nietzsche, once said: “if Christians want me to believe in their redeemer, they need to look more redeemed.”
He was drawing the wrong conclusion from a perceptive observation. To Nietzsche, most Christians looked just as burdened, clueless and lost as everybody else. When he looked into their eyes, he did not see hope, excitement, joy, and a sense of purpose. They seemed to be still wandering around the Sinai desert, emaciated and anemic; their faces full more of impossibilities than possibilities.
When the early Church of Rome celebrated the Easter vigil and the newly baptized came forward to receive their first holy communion, there was another cup on the altar besides the one containing the Lord’s precious blood. It was filled with milk and honey. For having passed through the waters of baptism, they had crossed the Jordan and entered into the Promised Land.
Never mind that they could not worship openly for fear of being dragged off to be thrown to the lions. After years in the desert, they were bound and determined to enjoy the fruits of the Land every chance they could. The nourishment did them good. Evidently they looked redeemed, because, despite the danger of persecution, so many of their neighbors came to believe in their redeemer that finally even the Emperor confessed faith in Christ.
Jesus did not pour out the last drop of his blood so that we could drag ourselves through life with the hopes that, after a lengthy stay in purgatory, we could just barely squeeze through the pearly gates. Rather he says: “I came that they might have life and have it to the full”.
He said this while discussing sheep and shepherds. Israel had long been a shepherding people. None of the details of the comparison would have been lost on Jesus’ listeners.
Most of us have seen paintings of a shepherd carrying a little lamb around his shoulders – one of the favorite images for Christ in early Christian art, with a surprising meaning. When a lamb is fearful or overconfident, it constantly wanders away from the shepherd, putting itself in danger. When that keeps happening, a shepherd will sometimes purposely break one of its legs. He then puts the lamb around his neck and carries it to and from pasture for the couple of weeks while the leg heals. By that time, the little lamb has become attached to the shepherd, and never again strays far from its master’s protection and guidance.
The image of the shepherd as the gate of the sheepfold, the corral, is even more suggestive. A flock of sheep needs both protection and nourishment. The sheepfold provides the protection, and the fields provide the nourishment. In Palestine, shepherds often sleep in the opening of the sheepfold, which is made out of a large circle of thick, high shrubbery. This way, wolves smell the shepherd’s presence and fear to make midnight raids, while the sheep keep together inside, comforted by the presence of their protector and guide. When day finally dawns, the shepherd rises to lead his sheep out to pasture. Thus the opening, the gate, symbolizes both protection and nourishment.
And so, when Christ calls himself the “gate for the sheep,” he is telling us what he wants to be for each of us: everything. Through Church teaching, he provides a thick hedge of truth protecting us from false, seductive doctrines. Through the sacraments, he provides rich pasture to strengthen our needy souls. And Jesus alone, the Good Shepherd, gives the Church her wisdom and the sacraments their power.
During my frequent visits to the Holy Land, I saw many sheep with their shepherds and learned something about sheep and why the patriarchs of Israel herded them through the wilderness. Unlike cows and horses, sheep can survive on just about anything, even small clumps of weeds, scorched brown by the Middle Eastern sun.
But Jesus is a good shepherd. He is not content to see his sheep barely survive. He wants us to thrive. He takes pleasure in energetic, robust sheep, not scrawny, anaemic ones. So the pastures to which he leads us are verdant, lush, and green, as Psalm 23 says, not scorched and brown. He spreads out a table, a true feast before us, not lunch in a brown bag. He does not ration our nourishment. Instead, our cup overflows.
Imagine the shepherd’s surprise when most of his sheep walk right by an oasis with its juicy grass and instead insist on munching the dried weeds at the desert’s edge.
But that’s exactly what many Christians do. For sure you have noticed that more show up to repent on Ash Wednesday than rejoice in the Eucharist on Holy Thursday? Has it ever appeared odd to you that of the many who give up things during Lent, very few enjoy daily Mass, adoration or extra time reading Scripture during Eastertide?
You can lead sheep to pasture but you can’t make them eat. The verdant pasture of the Catholic heritage is full of delicious treats that will make our spirits strong and our hearts sing. The exciting, new world of the Bible, the healing relief of confession, the writings of the Fathers, Doctors, and spiritual masters, the wise teaching of councils and popes, and most especially the Feast of Faith which is the Eucharist, these provide an abundance of pleasant nourishment that many Christians have scarcely tried.
In the Holy Land, to visit someone’s home and not eat the food that is laid out lavishly before you, is a great insult.
The Church offers us a feast. It cost the Lord his very life to prepare this table for us. Out of courtesy to Him, for the sake of your health, and for the sake of the Nietzsches of the world that need to see before they believe, eat!