Msgr. Joseph Prior

(See the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 22)

Jesus says: “I am the good shepherd.” The image of Jesus as a shepherd is a familiar one for us. He shepherds the flock whom he gathers. But Jesus is no ordinary shepherd.

We consider a shepherd who guides a flock of sheep to pasture, making sure they have drink. He will protect the flock as a means of his livelihood. The sheep will know, not so much him, but his voice.

Jesus, however, takes the image of a shepherd and does something extraordinary. He elevates it to a whole new dimension of significance.

The care and concern that Jesus has for the flock is not one related to income or business or livelihood. His concern is based on love. He loves the sheep of his flock. Naturally any decent shepherd will have “concern” for his sheep but Jesus does not speak about “concern,” he speaks the language of love.

Jesus says the good shepherd is the one who “lays down his life for his sheep.” He speaks of this elsewhere in the Gospel in terms of friendship: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). The willingness to die for one’s flock is not “ordinary,” it is “extraordinary.”

Jesus loves his sheep, his flock, his people. So much so that he says, “I know mine and mine know me.” Jesus speaks of a relationship that is built between himself and his people. He makes himself known to them. He makes his Father known to them as well. He leads them through this relationship to all that is good, all that gives life; in fact, he leads them to life itself.

Jesus can lead them to life because he is the only one who has risen from the dead and thus he is the Lord of Life. Jesus says: “This is why the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again. This command I have received from my Father.”

Jesus willingly and lovingly follows the will of the Father and restores the relationship broken through Adam’s sin.

Jesus is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. In doing so he gives himself, in love, for the salvation of all. The second reading for this Sunday’s Mass comes from the First Letter of John. The image shifts from a shepherd and his sheep to a father and his children. Both entail relationship. Jesus used the image as well. He tells us to call God “Our Father.”

The significance in this case is that through baptism into Christ’s death, we are mysteriously (or sacramentally) united with Christ and can now be called “children of God.” The relationship is now one of family. The love poured out in Christ Jesus now makes us sons and daughters of the one Father. The basis of this relationship is love.

We have been following the spread of the Gospel in Acts of the Apostles since Easter. The first reading continues this pattern. Here Peter once again proclaims Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection. Jesus is the one rejected by the flock but raised to life by the Father. Because of this he is the source and means of salvation for all.

St. Peter emphasizes this saying: “There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are saved.” The proclamation echoes Jesus own proclamation in fourth Gospel that he is “the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

Thus we come back to the image of the shepherd. Jesus is the shepherd not only because he gathers the flock, feeds his sheep or protects them from harm but because he leads them, leads them to the Father and to the fulness of life. Thus, Jesus is no “ordinary” shepherd. He is the Good Shepherd.

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Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.