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  • Writer's pictureFather Nicholas Lang

The Fourth Sunday of Easter

Loving Shepherd of your sheep,

All your lambs in safety keep;

Nothing can your power withstand,

none can pluck them from your hand.

Every year on this fourth Sunday of Easter we get a reference to sheep and shepherds, each Gospel writer offering a little different perspective. Today is often referred to as “Good Shepherd Sunday” because the Gospel on the fourth Sunday of Easter always includes these shepherding images of Jesus. Many sermons have been preached about sheep and shepherds and more will be every time this Sunday rolls around.

I thought I’d do a little research into what a shepherd in the time of Jesus was like and what their work entailed. In Christ’s day, shepherds stood on the bottom rung of the Palestinian social ladder. They shared the same unenviable status as tax collectors and dung sweepers.

Only Luke mentions them, and it is his narrative of the birth of Jesus. “There were shepherds in the fields watching their flocks,” he tells us. Considering that shepherds were relegated to the bottom rung of the socio-economic strata of society, it is significant that God chose to send angels to shepherds for the first announcement of the Savior’s appearance on earth. Another example of how God often chooses the most ordinary people to give an extraordinary job: these shepherds were the first evangelists announcing the birth of Christ.

A shepherd was often, but not, always a child and usually unmarried. Whatever his age, the shepherd’s job was to protect the flock and guide them to good pastures with plenty of food and slow-moving and easily accessible water, If the grass was of poor quality, the sheep would be malnourished; if the water moved too quickly, the sheep would be afraid to drink from it. Good pastures kept the flock healthy.

But shepherds were generally considered “unclean” people due to the work they did. These were in daily connection with dirty, smelly sheep, their manure, their bloodstream from cuts and scrapes, and also the insects that buzzed around them.

When his day was done and with all sheep are accounted four, whatever kind of sheep fold he brought the flock into, which was either an enclosed shed, a circle of stones with a crude roof of boughs thorns, or a cave, the shepherd would sleep across the door to protect the sheep while they sleep. If a predator tried to enter, the shepherd would awaken and beat it back as he would also do against thieves.

Over time, this powerful image of Jesus as the Shepherd became the ideal image for pastors, for priests and bishops. The shepherd-minister was the one individual expected to have "leadership" qualities. The clergy were shepherds and the congregation became the flock and the job of the clergy was supposed to be to shepherd or lead people into deeper faith, spirituality, and mission.

I find that somewhat troubling for two reasons. First, we know that while there are good and faithful ordained people there are also clergy who have abused their power and position of authority. Second, and perhaps more to the point, it seems to limit the model of the shepherd to a minority group in the church, namely the ordained, as well as disregarding the people of God as just the “flock” or the sheep who need to be led often in blind faith.

I think the “Good Shepherd” is the church—and not the building or institution but all of us who are members of Christ’s Body, with our arms, our legs, our hearts and our brains—and all our warts and faults. And I think these Gospel stories that offer the image of God and Jesus as the Good Shepherd are meant to tell us what our vocation as the church is all about: to guide one another, to nourish and nurture one another, to protect one another, to offer our sacred space as a place of safety, especially for those most in need of it.

The Scriptures are full of compelling stories and laced with insights. But despite their richness and depth, we can struggle with how to close the gap between the ancient world and our fast-paced world of today. What does it mean to know Jesus as the Good Shepherd when the only place we’ve encountered sheep may be at a petting zoo?

How can we grasp the promise of a land overflowing with honey when we buy ours in a bear-shaped bottle? How do we understand the idea of God’s anointing our head with oil when our frame of reference is the Extra Virgin Olive oil we use in cooking? Great questions to ponder. How do we close the gap and see beyond the imagery in this much loved psalm twenty-three?

There was a post in Facebook some years ago showing the traditional picture of Jesus with all the little children crowded around him. Underneath Jesus is saying: “The kingdom of heaven is like tearing apart the entire house looking for your keys while you’re running late for work only to realize they were in your pocket all the time.”

While we’re running around trying to live in the real and often crazy world and trying to be God’s people—the Good Shepherds—the key to doing all that is in our pocket all the time. God is within us waiting to relax us and ask for grace. It really all comes down to grabbing the hand of God and relying on those last eleven words of this Gospel: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

Loving Shepherd of your sheep,

All your lambs in safety keep;

Nothing can your power withstand,

none can pluck them from your hand.

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