GOOD SHEPHERD SUNDAY; VOCATIONS SUNDAY
Acts 4: 8-12; 1Jn 3: 1-2; Jn 10: 11-18
The Fourth Sunday of Easter is known as Good Shepherd Sunday because on this Sunday we hear the Gospel in which Jesus teaches us about the Good Shepherd. In addition, the day is normally celebrated as VOCATIONS SUNDAY, the day we pray that many young people may answer God’s call to serve him in various fields of life, just as Jesus the Good Shepherd did. The image of God being a shepherd portrays His personal care towards his people.
1. THE IMAGE OF A SHEPHERD IN THE BIBLE
One of the lead parts in the Christmas story was given to the shepherds who watched their flocks outside of Bethlehem. To most of us this means very little. Most Shepherds were devoted to their sheep. The Bible is filled with Shepherds. Abel was a Shepherd as was Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and even, for a time, Moses. Frequently throughout the Bible God’s people were referred to as Sheep and God is called the Shepherd of those sheep. An interesting sidelight: the early Latin translation of the Hebrew term for Shepherd was the word, “PASTOR”. Eventually this Latin word became the title given to those who led a congregation of people.
In Mark 10:18 Jesus told the rich man, “No one is good – except God alone.” So, by calling himself the GOOD SHEPHERD Jesus identified himself with God as the ultimate Shepherd over the people.
2. WE, LIKE SHEEP, NEED A SHEPHERD IN OUR LIVES
When God calls us sheep it is a very fitting analogy.
a) Sheep are absolutely helpless. Most animals have some kind of effective means of defense: sharp teeth, claws, speed, or an ability to blend in with the environment. A sheep does not have any of those things. A sheep is so helpless that if it gets rolled over on its back, many times it cannot get back up on its feet and can actually die. A sheep needs a shepherd to give it protection. The shepherd carries a club which he uses to fight off predators. He also carries a staff that has a hook on the end so that he can rescue the sheep when they fall into a hole or became entangled with the brush. The Shepherd checks the fields where the sheep graze and would look for holes in the ground that might indicate the presence of a viper. The sheep depend on the Shepherd.
Like Sheep, we are absolutely helpless. We are addicted to sin and can do nothing to make ourselves right with God. If left to ourselves, we would die eternally. We need the Good Shepherd to bring us back to God. He must work on our behalf.
b) Second, Sheep lack a sense of direction. Sheep can wander off and get lost very easily. There is a saying that you could walk your sheep from the front yard to the back yard and they would not be able to find their way back to the front yard! It is an apt analogy to humankind. We too tend to wander and then we wake up one day and do not know where we are or how we got to this place in life. We must rely on the guidance of the Shepherd found in the Word of God or we will end up wandering aimlessly.
c) Sheep are easily frightened. Any sound can startle a sheep. The Shepherd speaks to the sheep in calm words and sings songs in the night. We too can easily become unsettled by the events and circumstances of life. It is easy to feel overwhelmed. The Good Shepherd gives us perspective and reassures us by his words and promises.
d) Sheep are known for their “flock mentality”. They want to hang with other sheep; and they become agitated when they become separated from the rest of the flock. If one of the sheep wanders off, it is likely that others will follow, even to their own destruction. This is very much like human nature. Advertisers have learned the value of “product placement”. These companies have learned that if a certain hero in a movie is using a certain brand computer, playing a particular video game system, or drinking a certain beverage, the people watching will be more likely to buy that product. People are a lot like sheep. The way to combat this gullibility is to focus on the Shepherd and not the other sheep.
3. JESUS IS THE GOOD SHEPHERD
a) Jesus calls himself THE GOOD SHEPHERD. He is the one whom we, as the sheep, desperately need. He tells us why: “The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” (Jn 10:3); “I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep” (Jn 10:14-15). In Jesus’s time, most Shepherds did not raise their sheep to slaughter them. They raised them for the wool. Consequently, they developed relationships with the sheep much like we might develop a relationship with our family pet. The Shepherd knew his sheep and the sheep knew the Shepherd. Often several flocks would be kept together in one sheepfold. In the morning the Shepherd would simply call out to his sheep and the sheep would recognize the voice and come to him. The Shepherd had a relationship with the Sheep.
b) He knows our Names. Think about how you feel when you do business with a certain supplier for years, or serve an organization or even are an active part of a Parish and the priest does not know your name (except because of old age)! You feel devalued. On the other hand, when such people call you by name you feel valued and significant; you know that the person is able to distinguish you from the rest of the crowd. The Good Shepherd knows your name! He knows who you are and he loves you. You are important to him as an individual. The Great Shepherd does not only know your name, he also knows your nature and your personality. He knows your temperament, your moods, your weaknesses, and your passions. He knows your victories and your disappointments and how they have impacted you. Few (if any) people in our lives really understand us completely. In truth, we do not even understand ourselves most of the time. But the Good Shepherd knows you. He understands you better than you understand yourself. He can calm the churning stomach, soothe the anxious mind and give direction to those who are confused. The Good Shepherd can help us find rest.
We are familiar with David’s words in Psalm 23: “Near restful waters he leads me, to revive my drooping spirit. He guides me along the right path; he is true to his name; if I should walk in a valley of darkness no evil would I fear. You are there with your crook and your staff; with these you give me comfort” (Ps 23:2-4). David was writing from the perspective of one of God’s sheep. No matter where the road went, he had learned to trust the Shepherd. No matter how dark the road became, David entrusted himself to the Great Shepherd of the Sheep. David trusted that the Lord had a reason for everything that was happening in his life. How wonderful would it be if each one of us were to trust the Lord in the same way!
c) He lays down his life (Jn 10:14). Jesus mentions this 4 times in today’s gospel that the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. Jesus draws a contrast between himself and a man hired to watch the sheep. He points out that the Shepherd is dedicated to the sheep; but the hired worker is just doing a job. When danger comes, a Shepherd will protect the sheep (perhaps even to his own destruction); when the hired worker sees trouble he concludes that he does not get “paid enough” to do battle with wild animals. He takes off. On the contrary, Jesus cares for the sheep. He put himself between us and the anger of God. He gave his life as a payment for sin. No earthly shepherd can do that.
Jesus mentions something else that no other shepherd can do. Jesus would “lay down his life and then take it up again” (Jn 10:17). If a shepherd gave his life, the sheep would then be without a shepherd. Jesus gave his life and then returned from the dead to continue shepherding his people. He is the UNIQUE and GOOD Shepherd.
d) Jesus reaches out to others (v. 16). Jesus said, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd.” Jesus was talking to the Jews and was surely referring to the fact that the gospel would also be extended to the Gentiles. Jesus is Shepherd of all who trust him: Jew or Greek, young or old, male or female, rich or poor, famous or infamous. Therefore, it is important to note that we will all become one in Christ only when we realize that we have but one Shepherd, and that Shepherd has only one flock. We may gather in different “folds” (or churches), but we are part of the same flock. Christians are not competitors with each other! We belong to the same Lord and Saviour.
4. VOCATION SUNDAY
Today, we are also celebrating the 58th World Day of Prayer for Vocations. In his message on this day to all Christians and people of goodwill, Pope Francis bases his reflection on St. Joseph, as an example for all Christians to follow. St. Joseph is an extraordinary figure, not because of any astonishing charism or special status, but simply because he accomplished extraordinary acts of service in his daily life. The Pope tells us that “God looks on the heart, and in Saint Joseph He recognized the heart of a father, able to give and generate life in the midst of daily routines.” Vocations, he adds, have the same goal of begetting and renewing the lives of others.
In a nutshell, the Holy Father tells us that the life of Saint Joseph suggests three key words for each individual’s vocation:
a) The first is DREAM. The Gospel of Matthew recounts four dreams with which God inspired St. Joseph, each of which represented a difficult call from God. “After each dream, Joseph had to change his plans and take a risk, sacrificing his own plans in order to follow the mysterious designs of God, whom he trusted completely.” Though it may seem strange to us that Joseph would put so much trust in dreams, through these dreams, the Saint let himself be guided without hesitation. Joseph could take such bold steps “Because his heart was directed to God; it was already inclined towards Him. A small indication was enough for his watchful ‘inner ear’ to recognize God’s voice.”
Pope Francis concludes that God’s call to each of us happens in the same way, without putting pressure on our freedom. “He does not overwhelm us with dazzling visions but quietly speaks in the depths of our heart, drawing near to us and speaking to us through our thoughts and feelings.” Yet, as St. Joseph demonstrates, our acceptance of God’s call cannot be passive. It requires us to press forward and take risks by abandoning ourselves to God’s grace.
b) A second word that marks the journey of Saint Joseph and that of vocation: SERVICE. The Holy Father says that Joseph’s life was one of Serving and protecting. “The Gospels show how Joseph lived entirely for others and never for himself. By freeing love from all possessiveness, he became open to an even more fruitful service.” Joseph’s limitless, selfless love led the him to sustain daily sacrifices, as a rule for daily life. “He adapted to different circumstances with the attitude of those who do not grow discouraged when life does not turn out as they wished,” says the Pope. “He showed the willingness typical of those who live to serve.” Pope Francis adds that he personally likes to think of St. Joseph as the “protector of vocations,” since his willingness to serve fills him with a “concern to protect.” Pope Francis concludes: “Such thoughtful concern is the sign of a true vocation, the testimony of a life touched by the love of God.”
c) A third characteristic of Saint Joseph’s daily life and our Christian vocation is FIDELITY. St. Joseph always patiently pondered his actions, and knew that “success in life is built on constant fidelity to important decisions.” Pope Francis says that God teaches each of us how to nurture fidelity “in the light of God’s own faithfulness.” He further notes that “This fidelity is the secret of joy. It is the joy of simplicity, the joy experienced daily by those who care for what truly matters: faithful closeness to God and to our neighbour.”
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus says that those who hear his voice follow him. To hear the Shepherd’s voice requires quiet and prayer. Pope Saint John Paul II said, “Young people, if they can be taught how to pray, can be trusted to know what to do with God’s call.” Therefore, if we preach about prayer, methods of prayer, and the importance of listening for God’s voice; if we cultivate a life of prayer, especially when making big decisions in life, we would be helping many to recognize the voice of the GOOD SHEPHERD.
In this light, Pope Francis concludes his message for the 58th World Day of Prayer for Vocations by urging the Church’s ministers and Christian faithful to fill their homes with this same “simple and radiant, sober and hopeful” joy characteristic of St. Joseph’s life. The Holy Father prays for all Christians “that you will experience this same joy, dear brothers and sisters who have generously made God the dream of your lives, serving him in your brothers and sisters through a fidelity that is a powerful testimony in an age of ephemeral choices and emotions that bring no lasting joy.”
May Saint Joseph, protector of vocations, accompany you with his fatherly heart! AMEN.