The Way of the Shepherd

On this Good Shepherd Sunday, the Gospel readings in all cycles present excerpts from John 10. Breaking the chapter into segments this way presents major problems, since the distinctive Johannine theology emerges only from Jn. 10:1-18. Today’s reading is an appetizer before the main course. Jesus tells an initial parable (10:1-6) warning against thieves and robbers who do not enter the sheepfold through the gate, in contrast to the shepherd who enters the gate, calls his own sheep by name and walks ahead of them, since they recognize his voice. There follows a double application of the parable, in which Jesus is both the gate and the shepherd.

The shepherd imagery is deeply rooted in biblical thought. God is the ultimate shepherd of the people, providing guidance, sustenance and protection (Psalm 23); and kings and other leaders were to be shepherds of their people. Israel’s hopes for the end time included a messianic figure who, like David the shepherd king, would gather in the people. The designation good for Jesus contrasts with the frequent designation of unfaithful leaders in Israel as bad shepherds, who abuse and neglect the flock. Though not proclaimed in today’s reading, the distinctive Johannine addition to the biblical tradition is the shepherd who will lay down his life for his flock, which includes sheep not of this fold, so there will be one flock and one shepherda verse that motivated Pope John XXIII when he envisioned the Second Vatican Council.

The paschal season calls us to reflect on the distinctive Johannine contribution to pastoral ministry. John’s Gospel shows little interest in structured roles and offices and lacks any appointment of 12 Apostles. The beloved disciple, not Peter, is given pride of place. A Johannine disciple is not chosen to govern or even proclaim the Gospel but to be a faithful witness who brings people to Jesus. The pastoring is done by Jesus, who knows and listens to the sheep. He is also their way, truth and life, and true disciples form a community of friends known by their self-emptying love.

Recently we have been inundated by a deluge of public reports about bad shepherds, with resulting mudslides of explanation, recriminations and justified pain and anger. Such sad events may be a wake-up call to reflect on John’s vision of a community characterized by a love that brings people to Christ and a truth that will make them free. Catholic theology is often a combination of Johannine Christology (with a tilt to the divine side of truly divine and truly human) and Matthean ecclesiology (with a tilt to Mt. 16:16-20). A new church may emerge with a Johannine ecclesiology and a Matthean Christology: Come to me all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest (11:28).

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