Gospel Reflection for April 25, 2021, Fourth Sunday of Easter
Father Koch: The Lord sends us shepherds to point us to the Good Shepherd
The Fourth Sunday of Easter is “Good Shepherd Sunday” and we focus on that image of Jesus. It is a quaint image, one however, that does not resonate so well with the modern urban hearer. Unaccustomed to sheep, and with a cursory knowledge of sheep as passive and weak animals, the idea of a shepherd leading the flock can seem belittling.
Jesus, first visited by shepherds at his Nativity in Bethlehem is well acquainted with sheep. As he stands in the lineage of King David, himself a shepherd, Jesus presenting himself as a “good shepherd” takes root in his hearers. At various points in the Old Testament, we hear the language of shepherding used with some frequency – there are, as Jesus also points out – both good shepherds and bad shepherds. Of course there are good sheep and those sheep that break off and go their own way.
Jesus uses an image that builds a deeper sense of commitment and relationship between those who have oversight (bishops) and those who follow them (the faithful). In order to avoid schism and dissension, Jesus employs this sense of shepherding to his disciples and then to the whole Church. He knows well that we need a sense of direction, a common expression of faith, and a faithful and learned champion who hands on the tradition and faith of the Church for us. We see this played out through the history of the Church. After the Reformation unfolded and everyone became their own measuring stick (canon) of what to believe and especially how to interpret the Scriptures outside of a tradition, the faithful sallied in many diverse directions, leaving behind more confusion than clarity. This leaves us with countless thousands of Christian denominations, who often compete with one another, serving as a sign of scandal to both the Christian and non-Christian worlds.
Another challenge that comes forth in this image is of the sheep themselves. Not all sheep want to be shepherded. Some wander off and others become defiant – either openly or passively – to the call and guidance of the shepherd. Many of us would prefer to be our own shepherd because it would make life so much “easier.” Here we become our own religion, which itself becomes akin to idolatry, as the only shepherding voice we end up hearing is our own.
Occasionally, and perhaps with ever-increasing frequency, the sheep believe themselves to be wiser, more faithful, and better suited than their shepherds. While we have seen the failure of some of our shepherds in the past to protect the faithful and to exercise just prudence in their actions, we cannot expect them to be more than the human beings that they are.
The relationship between the sheep and the shepherds is getting more and more muddled as certain groups in the blogosphere and the world of internet videos rails against the shepherds of the Church often honing in on our chief shepherd, Pope Francis. Almost all of them are under attack, not for injustice or imprudence, but for having the courage to remain faithful, or to engage the world in dialogue, seeking common ground in the fight against injustice or threats to human integrity.
This is nothing new. In the 1970’s the virulent attacks by some visionaries were made against Pope (St.) Paul VI. Many voices were raised against Pope (St.) John Paul II during his long pontificate. Pope Benedict XVI suffered the indignity of many awful attacks against him, and now Pope Francis endures his own time of persecution. The same is true of many bishops, including our own. Crass, ingenuous, and villainous attacks at their leadership, faithfulness and integrity, serve to discourage the faithful and scandalize non-believers.
Our problem isn’t that we don’t have good shepherds we seem to not want good shepherds. Filled with hubris and spiritual pride, many of us really want to make the Church in our own image, and to be our own shepherd. It’s an easier way to live, perhaps, but is dangerous to faith and indeed gravely sinful. Yes, Jesus Christ is the true Good Shepherd, leading us to the path of eternal life. But we fail to understand that as we reject the shepherds whom we see, we do ultimately reject Jesus himself.
Father Garry Koch is pastor of St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel.