I hate this Gospel,” said a friend of mine from New Zealand, as she broke open the Word for the assembly on Good Shepherd Sunday some years ago. Coming from a country that at the time had 60 million sheep and three million people, she knew sheep. One image this Gospel conjures up is that of a flock of dumb animals who mindlessly follow after whoever herds them. It was this notion of disciples as dumb sheep to which my friend objected, and rightly so. The metaphor falters when we notice that the text emphasizes the intimate knowledge the sheep have of the shepherd and vice versa (10:14). Moreover, the intimacy between Jesus and “his own” replicates the relationship he has with the Father (10:15). It is an intimacy expressed ultimately in loving self-surrender, even unto death.
There is a kind of domino effect in the fourth Gospel. First, God pours out the divine self in love through the gift of the Word made flesh (Jn 1:14; 3:16), a self-surrender that is replicated in Jesus’ gift of self for his own (10:15). This same action is what is asked of his followers, especially those in leadership (15:13). The image of shepherd is used a number of times in the Scriptures for a leader of the people. God is shepherd of Israel (Gn 49:24; Pss 23:1; 78:52-53). Moses and David were both shepherds as boys before being called to lead Israel.
When Israel’s leaders were not tending to the needs of the people, they were denounced for being absent and stupid shepherds who scattered the flock (1 Kgs 22:17; Jer 10:21; 23:1-2; Ez 34:5-6). By contrast, Jesus is the “model” (kalos, “good,” “beautiful,” “exemplary”) shepherd, who gathers all together into one, giving his very life for his own. We replicate this kind of shepherding not by actively seeking suffering but by putting love at the center: God’s love visible in Jesus, Jesus’ love manifest in us. It is a love freely chosen by one who is empowered and willing to go to extremes if necessary. This requires not blind following but intimate knowledge of the model shepherd and the free choice to continue his work of gathering all the disparate into one.