HOMILY 4TH SUNDAY AFTER EASTER YEAR A 2023 ESSENDON
JESUS AS GATE AND GOOD SHEPHERD
Jn 10.1-10 AA 2.14, 36-41 1Pt 2.20-25
Back in about 1965, my brother Paul and I spent a week on a cousin of Mum’s Harry’s sheep and wheat farm, near Shepparton. It was my one and only experience of farm life, but stuck in my mind as a moment of enlightenment as to the hard work and demands of that world, totally foreign to a city dweller, even though my maternal grandfather had been a farmer near St Arnaud, but leased it out in 1926 or so when the family came to Melbourne. At Harry’s farm it was shearing season, and I’ll never forget the 5am rise in the cold to get out to the farm for the start of the day. He had a large family of 6 or so children, and the reality of lambs to the slaughter was evident in the ‘killer’ paddock, where a few of the lambs were being fattened up for consumption by the family.
It’s funny how lamb chops were once a part of the staple diet growing up, but are now among the most expensive cuts of meat, along with racks and roasts! (And remember, there was the Lamb Chop puppet show on TV way back there!). So, for you and me, as city suburban types, the image of lambs is more of the meat in the supermarket (if you can afford it and are not vegetarian!), than the lambs frolicking freely out in the fields.
Despite all that, the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is something we’ve grown up with in our Catholic tradition, a favourite image of Pope Francis with the lamb wrapped around his shoulders, and Bishop Vincent Long of Parramatta has also used the image as pastor of his people. It is a lovely symbol of the nurturing and care of the shepherd protecting his sheep and knowing them each by name, rather than just having the anonymous flock, where the 1% lost doesn’t really count for too much.
For Jesus, it’s the opposite, as the good shepherd goes out to seek and find the one that is lost, and then brings it home with great rejoicing. It is a reassuring picture for you and me, if we reflect on it personally as relating to us. The other Gospels focus on it more than John’s Gospel, except for this particular passage. Pope Francis reminds us from early on in his now 10 year papacy, that pastors in particular, need to be down to earth and work with their people to get ‘the smell of the sheep’, to know their needs, and not just act as functionaries giving orders from above. Common sense tells us that sacramental and pastoral ministry go hand in hand with one another.
Claude Mostowik MSC’s take on this says it well: “Jesus contrasted God’s loving and kind approach to people to that of the religious leaders. His concern, as that of Pope Francis, was less about keeping burdensome rules and regulations but to facilitate encounter and develop relationships to enable people to come together and live life to the full… being with, listening and knowing the needs of people.” Each person must be made feel to belong, to matter, and to have a sense of sharing in the mission of living the Gospel.
In John’s Gospel his use of metaphors tends to be limited to the gate, the shepherd and the vine and the branches. In his communities, there were obviously problems of division and even hostility over who was right, with tensions enduring, in families and among friends, from the move away from the Temple into worshipping Christian communities gathering in homes to recognize Jesus in the Breaking of the Bread.
And there were also threats from false prophets along the way, so the warning is to be discerning as to who the true shepherds were. Like the chaps on the road to Emmaus turning back to where the real action was in Jerusalem, we are called to engage with those in our local scene.
Then there is the image of the gate to the paddock of protection and belonging, which Jesus uses of himself, the means by which we gain access to him and his love and concern. Yet, there is movement to and from or in and out, as we have access to the open pastures of the fields of life, where we have the freedom to find our own way, and the opportunity to make our own decisions, hopefully for the better. Then there is the reassurance of coming home and finding rest with him who shows the way and provides security.
There is a balance implied, between the need to go each way through the gate. As Brendan Byrne SJ puts it well: “If the sheep are to flourish, they have to come and go through the gate of the fold; if they stay within the fold, they will decline for lack of pasture. If they don’t return to the fold, but stay out in the hillsides all night, they will be at risk. So, daily they have to come and go through the gate, which then becomes their means of access to both protection and growth.” This image can also be taken as a pointer to the need for belonging and being a member of a thriving community, working together.
Old Testament references are often enough made to God as one who loves his flock and who shepherds it through the trials and tribulations of life, as in the psalm most often used for funerals, in “The Lord is My Shepherd”, today’s psalm of reassurance and comfort. I guess the only trouble is that it can be overdone, perhaps so familiar that we don’t reflect so much on the words and their meaning in terms of the faith dimension.
And so we look at the bigger picture of Jesus extending his pastoral mission to the disciples, who are commissioned to continue the role of shepherding and leading by example, in going out to build Christian communities, a role for all of us in our own way.
Then I consider the extended metaphor of you and me as sheep to be guided and to follow the leader, but with reservations, as I like to see us all as people who think for ourselves, rather than blindly following without reflection, and making our own decisions, in the context of applying Gospel principles to our lives, and so to the lives of others.
john hannon 30th April 2023