One of the most frequent subjects of early Christian art is Jesus, the Good Shepherd, an image that often combines elements from the parable of the Lost Sheep (Lk. 15:1-7) with Jesus’ self-description in John 10. The beautiful fresco in Rome’s catacomb of St. Domitilla is representative. In a setting of verdant growth, a young Jesus appears, a sheep draped around his shoulders, while other sheep look longingly at him—symbolizing that as Good Shepherd Christ will lead his followers to paradise.
The Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Easter in all three cycles of the Lectionary readings is from the Johannine allegory of Jesus as both door to the sheep fold and shepherd (John 10). Then, until Pentecost, the Gospels switch from appearances of the risen Jesus to selections from the farewell discourses in John 13 to 17. In the New Testament, especially in John, the passion, death, resurrection and giving of the Spirit are one saving event, though they are played out over a period of time. In these parting words of Jesus to his earthy followers we hear the voice of the risen Jesus speaking to the church through the ages.
Jesus twice describes himself as the good shepherd, who knows the sheep and gives his life for them—in contrast with hirelings, who neglect the sheep. The translation “good” does not capture the nuance of the Greek, which suggests also an authentic or model shepherd. Behind the rich imagery of this passage are the frequent Old Testament uses of the shepherd image to describe God’s care: for the people, important leaders in salvation history, Moses, David, anointed kings and the hoped-for Messiah. Negatively, Jesus’ contrast with the hirelings evokes God’s polemic against false shepherds (leaders), who neglect the sheep and exploit them for their own gain (Ezek. 34:11-31). It is unique to John that a messianic figure will give his life for the sheep. Though this anticipates Jesus’ passion and death, the Greek expression, literally “put (or place) my life for the sake of others” implies that Jesus’ whole life and teaching is a model for good shepherding.
With its references to “other sheep that do not belong to this fold,” whom Jesus will also lead, and to the hope for “one flock and one shepherd,” this Gospel inspired Pope John XXIII’s vision for the Second Vatican Council and has remained influential in ecumenical and interreligious dialogue. While “other sheep” in John is most likely a reference to the emerging Gentile mission, the expression has come to describe people who are not explicitly believers and yet remain touched in some mysterious sense by the grace of the Incarnation (“the word made flesh,” Jn. 1:14), which affects all humanity. Too often, also, the “one flock and one shepherd” are envisioned in ecclesial or structural terms. Its background is Jewish hopes that at the end-time the Messiah would unify all the scattered people of Israel and gather the “nations” to Zion. In John it also evokes a future hope (“there will be”) of final unity in Christ. This is willed by God and is a goal that should shape church life and teaching, but it is ultimately God’s doing. Throughout history a church that listens to the voice of the risen Jesus is to be one of service and mutual, self-giving love as an authentic witness to the sheep not of this fold.
This Sunday is also designated World Day of Prayer for Vocations, so one immediately thinks of the wide range of vocations to “pastoral service”—lay, religious and priestly. Yet the readings warn against identifying too readily “office” with pastoral ministry. Jesus is the shepherd, who knows the sheep, and they will hear his voice. This passage foreshadows John’s version of the Petrine ministry (Jn. 21:15-19), when Peter, who denied Jesus three times, is drawn to affirm his love three times and is only then commissioned to feed and care for “my sheep.” Unlike Mt. 16:16-18, there is no commission to exercise authoritative power. During this Eastertide the church is reminded of Jesus, who conquered death, who will lead his sheep to paradise, and who is a model of authentic pastoral care defined in terms of knowing and self-emptying service, which extends to the other sheep who “do not belong to this fold."