Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Fourth Sunday of Easter: Homily: 2015

I am the Good Shepherd

I must confess that I have never much cared for the term ‘pastor’ applied to the clergy. It is of course just the Latin word for ‘shepherd’. But, as Fr. Knox once said, priests are much more like sheepdogs than they are shepherds.

“The shepherd doesn’t run after the sheep when they get straying; he shouts to his dog, and the dog runs after them, barking at them in a very rude way. When you see a sheep dog doing that, it ought to remind you of my sermons; you should think of the clergy yapping at you and saying, “You ought to do this,” and “You mustn’t do that”; they do it because they are acting under the Shepherd’s orders. I don’t say the clergy don’t sometimes enjoy it; but then, I dare say the sheep dog enjoys it.”

This view in fact has the support of St. Gregory the Great who said: in scripture “dogs represent preachers who bark loudly on the Lord’s behalf ”.  And St. Gregory wrote the book on how to be a pastor, the Pastoral Rule

In any case when you hear Jesus say in the Gospel this Sunday “I am the Good Shepherd”, I suspect that last thing you would think about is me. At least I hope so. If you were a pagan of the first century, you would probably think of a care-free life out in the countryside, where the shepherd without a care in the world would sing gushy poetry to the sheep. If you were a Jew, however, you would think of David the Shepherd King, who learned to slay the enemies of Israel by slaying the wolves who threatened the sheep. What I first think of, when I hear about the Good Shepherd is the really dreadful stained glass window that stood over the altar in St. James, the parish I grew up in. You know the kind of thing I am talking about: purple and green backdrop with Jesus draped in lambs with a look on his face like he is just about to burst into tears at how cute the whole thing is.

Fortunately Jesus tells us exactly what he means when he calls himself the Good Shepherd. First, the Good Shepherd is willing to lay down his life for the flock.  Second, the Good Shepherd knows his own and his own know him. Finally, there will be one flock, one shepherd.

Twice in the Gospel Jesus affirms his commitment to the sheep, even to the point of death: ‘The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep’ and ‘I lay down my life for the sheep’. This divine mission is contrasted with the flight of the 'hired hand’ – the man who has the excuse that his  life is more valuable than the life of a dumb animal. But Jesus is not proposing to us a lesson in animal husbandry. It makes no business sense at all to ‘leave the 99 sheep and go in search of the one lost sheep’. He is showing what the salvation of men and women entails.  For Jesus the life of man is more valuable than his own life.  As is often the case in St. John’s Gospel Jesus speaks not of what is naturally possible but what is possible only in the realm of grace.

That only makes sense with the aid of the second theme of the Good Shepherd: the shepherd knows his sheep and they likewise recognize him. This relationship is in fact compared to knowledge that the Father has of the Son and the Son has of the Father. The Good Shepherd knows his sheep and they know him “just as the Father knows me and I know the Father”. Such knowledge is more than knowing something, some detail or other. It is 'knowing' in the biblical sense of the word: not merely sexual but the intimacy between man woman which issues forth in self-sacrificial love, love which must lay down it’s life for the beloved. She is worth dying for; he is worth dying for. A great mystery, St. Paul says, but I speak of the unity of Christ and the Church.

Finally, the Good Shepherd insists that this love must  also be characteristic of the Church, the fold of the Jews being united with the “other sheep that do not belong to this fold” i.e. the Gentiles. “I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd." This is the very same urgency about Christian Unity which Jesus elsewhere in St. John’s Gospel voices in his prayer to the Father: “that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee,  that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.”

There is plenty to cry over about the Church but what should really dismay us and upset us is the disunity of Christians and what we should long for and pray for is that unity which Jesus intended for his Church, unity not in convenience but unity in truth  that the world may know that Jesus is the one whom the Father has sent.

I know that I am always going on and on about that. But that is what sheep-dogs do ‘under the Shepherd’s orders’ ‘barking loudly on the Lord’s behalf’.

I am the Good Shepherd

 As so often I was helped and inspired by Fr. von Balthasar.

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