The image of a shepherd with his sheep is a beautiful pastoral image that we see as a child and gives rise to thoughts and feelings of light, peace and beauty. A few weeks ago in reading the Sunday papers I came across an article about shepherds that older folks might relate to better. It appears that shepherds live much longer than most people. The isolation and outdoor weather does not bring limitations to their life spans, but rather the healthy outdoor life along with organic food, quiet and also lack of pressure and stress provide the conditions for a longer life. Although the life span of a shepherd is not what the scripture readings are about, I thought it would be nice to know that if you do not see me around, I could be on a mountainside tending sheep!
One of the constant images in our church history and story is that of a shepherd. We have so many, many stained glass windows in our great and humble churches that picture the Lord Jesus as the Good Shepherd. Dramatic or poignant pictures of the Good Shepherd fill our church walls and galleries. Most of us from our childhood on can remember hundreds of pictures of the Good Shepherd, whether in religious books or on holy cards. The sheep are always content and snow white. We can remember that a fluffy white little lamb sits closely on the shoulders of the Good Shepherd. This powerful and intense image provides comforts to one and all. Did you realize that every year our Church celebrates Jesus as the Good Shepherd on this Fourth Sunday of Easter?
We learn in our first reading that Peter's first miracle got him in trouble. Peter learned quite early that his life would definitely not parallel that of his master. The authorities demanded that Peter justify himself and his actions. He, instead, just proclaimed his belief and told his listeners that they also accept Jesus Christ the Nazorean "whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead." Ultimately the words and actions of St. Peter proved his faith. Peter spoke fearlessly of Jesus who, like a good shepherd, laid down his life for his sheep. The Gospel reading for this "Good Shepherd Sunday" also follows upon a cure. Jesus cured the man born blind, and for this he was questioned severely by the Pharisees. Jesus' discourse on the good shepherd describes his relationship to the man born blind and to us - all of us, Pharisees included.
Remember in Israel's history and narrative shepherds are esteemed, for example King David was often called a Shepherd of his People literally and figuratively. Although highly regarded in that culture, they lived outside the rule of law on distant mountain tops. Thus this is most likely why Jesus used these outsider shepherds as a new image of redemption. Jesus is talking about the relationship between the shepherd and sheep. He tell us that that the good shepherd differs dramatically from others; he will go so far as to lay down his life for his sheep - an unheard-of claim. In Israel at Jesus' time, shepherds usually tended rather small flocks and knew their sheep by name, knew their markings and temperaments. The good shepherd knows his own more intimately that this. He knows them the way the Father knows Jesus. The depth of intimacy between leader and follower is the same as the closeness between Father and Son. And that relationship can include everyone on earth. The question is whether we will allow or seek this relationship with the Jesus, our Good Shepherd.