This stained glass window of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is found in St. Paul Church, Burlington, part of St. Katharine Drexel Parish, Burlington. File photo
This stained glass window of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is found in St. Paul Church, Burlington, part of St. Katharine Drexel Parish, Burlington. File photo
Gospel Reflection for May 3, 2020, Fourth Sunday of Easter

Throughout history, the Church has endured some very turbulent times. At times the level of corruption among even the highest members of the clergy is heartbreaking. It is challenging to see the Church – the Bride of Christ – acting as anything other than the bride. We can certainly see that both the Great Schism of 1054 and the seeds of the Reformation in 1517 are in many ways both caused and fueled by this scandalous heritage.

The same was certainly true of the Jewish community at the time of Jesus. The High Priest at the Temple became a political patronage position and not the hereditary position mandated from the time of Moses. Likewise, rulers of the Sanhedrin and the various scribes and the Sadducees sought financial gain over the religious obligations of their positions. At various points in his ministry Jesus was critical of their failures, ill-gotten gains, and misplaced priorities.

Certainly, it is not solely religious leaders who fall into this trap of self-satisfaction over service to others and the common good. Our political, business, educational, and social service organizations are rife with this same disease. It is virtually inescapable in the human condition.

Our fallen nature, and the propensity to sin and to seek one’s security and importance over others that is its consequence, is so prevalent in the world that we often fail to see it. 

Jesus certainly lived at a time when the people who traveled a long distance to hear him were “like sheep without a shepherd.” Regularly and consistently throughout his public ministry Jesus had to shepherd his people through their struggles to find God’s loving and healing mercy in their own lives. In general terms they weren’t being fed well by their religious leaders. Jesus reaches out to them in compassion and mercy as he knows their longing for God and the promise of salvation.

One of the most powerful images that Jesus gives to himself is that of the Good Shepherd. Each year we remind ourselves of this image specifically on the Fourth Sunday of Easter which is designated as Good Shepherd Sunday.

In reflecting on the priest as shepherds, Pope Francis stated in his homily closing the Extraordinary Year of Mercy by saying: “So it is also with the priest of Christ. He is anointed for his people, not to choose his own projects but to be close to the real men and women whom God has entrusted to him. No one is excluded from his heart, his prayers or his smile. With a father’s loving gaze and heart, he welcomes and includes everyone, and if at times he has to correct, it is to draw people closer. He stands apart from no one but is always ready to dirty his hands. The Good Shepherd does not wear gloves. As a minister of the communion that he celebrates and lives, he does not await greetings and compliments from others, but is the first to reach out, rejecting gossip, judgements and malice. He listens patiently to the problems of his people and accompanies them, sowing God’s forgiveness with generous compassion. He does not scold those who wander off or lose their way but is always ready to bring them back and to resolve difficulties and disagreements. He knows how to include.”

We can overcome the scandals of the past and present and avoid falling into those same scandals in the future when we have hearts that are attuned to the Good Shepherd.

Jesus knew full well that those whom he appointed to go forth to shepherd his people would stumble and fall along the way. He knew that the sheep could discern between the stranger and the shepherd, but that in their fear, vulnerability, and their own faith, that they too might get caught up in the very scandals that would bring down their shepherds.

Jesus is the only true shepherd. He alone stands before us and with us without sin, leading us to the promise of life eternal. He is the sheep-gate, the only portal through which we enter. When the shepherds begin to believe themselves to be that portal, or that they alone possess the keys to eternal life or that they have a direct line of communication to the Father, then we know that it is time to return to the Good Shepherd – Jesus Christ himself.

Our faith is not built on the shepherds, but on the Good Shepherd. It is his voice we heed in the darkness of our lives.

Father Garry Koch is pastor of St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel.