The Fourth Sunday of Easter, or Good Shepherd Sunday, has been traditionally set apart to celebrate the vocations to the priesthood and the religious life. But parents, teachers, catechists and leaders at home or work, or in school, are also called to a pastoral vocation: “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep. (Isaiah 40:11)
Shepherds in the time of Jesus
Many great Biblical figures – Abraham, Jacob, David, Amos – were shepherds. In Bible times, a shepherd’s flock usually included sheep that were not his own. Most villagers could not afford to own a whole flock, so they would entrust the few animals they possessed to one shepherd – the village’s chief shepherd – paying him as a hired hand to pasture the village flock, care for them if they were sick or injured, protect them from robbers and predators, rescue them if fell into ravines or got tangled in bushes, and look for them if they strayed away. When not at pasture, all the sheep would be enclosed in a communal sheep pen, from which each flock’s owner would call his own, having trained his animals to respond to his particular vocal signal only, and not to others’. It was to shepherds such as these that the Good News of the Incarnation was proclaimed the very first Christmas – Jesus is the model par excellence of a Good Shepherd, although he was a carpenter by trade. It was not an easy life, and in times of drought or hardship, the chief shepherd would often give priority to his own animals.
Shepherds in the time of his Church
During the season of Lent, we may have dutifully prayed and fasted and given alms, and gone for confession and resolved fervently to carry our crosses without complaint, dying to ourselves so as to rise with Christ at Easter. But it was on that very first Easter that the Risen Christ had this conversation with Peter:
“Simon son of John, do you love me more than these [other disciples]?” Peter said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep… After this he said to him, “Follow me.” (John 21:15-17, 19)
“The Lord said clearly that concern for his flock was proof of love for him.” (St John Chrysostom, CCC 1551). “Career” shepherds who used or abused the flocks under their stewardship for personal gain or glory were condemned (Ezekiel 34). Christ died on Good Friday not just for Christians but for all humanity. Do we love the Lord enough to feed and tend all the lambs and sheep entrusted to our care? As pastors and leaders given authority over people who may not be our own children or from our own community, ministry or parish, or who may not be of our own faith, what is our attitude towards them? One of mere hired hands who give special preference only to our own flock, or that of servants and custodians, accountable to parents or guardians and responsible for the protection and well-being of all the sheep under our care, not out of fear or duress, but from love and mercy and compassion?
It is easy to feed lambs – the ones who are young and adorable, curious, teachable, innocent, docile and harmless. But as lambs mature into sheep, feeding and tending to them becomes more difficult. They develop a mind and will of their own, some defiantly refusing to listen to our voice, advising and counselling them; running away from us as we strive to lead them to the greener pastures of knowledge and life skills, and the stiller waters of calm and self-confidence; biting, butting or kicking us as we struggle to shear them of their bad habits, or carry them to safety after they are chased away by other sheep in the flock, or led astray by wolves in sheep’s clothing prowling on social media, or in the real world; or as we try to provide for them physically, spiritually and emotionally, especially the lambs and sheep with special needs.
There are many times we will fail to prove our love for Christ.
As a shepherdess of my own flock of three full-grown sheep, how often have I looked back with remorse and guilt at their lamb-years and regretted not being a better mother ewe, spending more time playing with them, or just grazing peacefully with them and teaching them to recognise, listen and follow the voice of the Good Shepherd more effectively. Feeling this way with my own sheep, how much more I must have failed the sheep that were not my own as a teacher and catechist and ministry leader!
But the Lord knows, understands and forgives, and continues to love and call us. This indeed is the whole point of the miracle of Easter. All we are called to do as shepherds of souls is, as Peter himself taught:
“Tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it –not for sordid gain but eagerly. Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will win the crown of glory that never fades away.” (1 Peter 5:2-4)
We can all things through the Risen Christ, the Good Shepherd who is with us until the end of time, as we await the fresh infilling of the power of his Holy Spirit that will be ours at Pentecost.
Written by Frances