Father Earl Meyer: The Good Shepherd
The Good Shepherd is the popular iconic image of Jesus as a devoted Savior. The word shepherd is found over fifty times in the Old Testament and fifteen times in the New Testament, but only the gospel of John speaks of a good shepherd. The familiar twenty-third psalm, although traditionally called the Good Shepherd Psalm, does not have the word good in its text.
That is significant because John’s gospel is also the only place where Jesus himself says explicitly that he is a shepherd. In other scriptural passages shepherds are anonymous characters in parables or metaphors. But in John's gospel Christ says of his own person, “I am the good shepherd.” He then assures us that as a good shepherd he guards the gate to protect his flock. He further explains that he knows the sheep by name and they know him, recognize his voice and follow him. Finally, he reminds us that as a paternal shepherd he will gather his sheep into one flock.
In this brief passage he says five times that as a good shepherd he will lay down his life for his sheep. Christ the good shepherd as the Lamb of God sacrificed for others is the heart of the Christian faith, the Paschal Mystery of the death and resurrection of Christ. The Good Shepherd has become the Paschal Lamb.
To grasp the fullness of this mystery, consider the difference between an earthly shepherd and his flock: the human leader and the animal livestock. Now multiply that difference infinitely, to gain some idea of the difference between the divinity of Christ the Good Shepherd and the humanity of his followers. And yet the Son of God willingly laid down his life for his errant human flock, which is the ultimate goodness of our Shepherd.
Another dimension of this goodness can be appreciated by contrasting the work of shepherds with that of cattlemen. They are both stockmen, but there is a major difference in the manner of their work and that distinction is crucial to the gospel image of Christ as our good shepherd. Cattlemen drive their herds; shepherds lead their flocks. Cattle are driven; sheep follow.
This distinction captures a dimension of our faith that deserves further reflection. Christianity is not a cattle drive. It is a pasture under the care of a shepherd who leads his flock. The Good Shepherd does not have a herd, he has a flock; he does not compel, he invites; he does not enforce, he embraces. The Christian faith is not a tyranny, as some critics suggest. It is a kingdom of truth and life, holiness and grace, justice, love and peace. Such values do not rule by force but by faith.
The scriptures tell us that Christ and many of his apostles ultimately gave their lives as shepherds for their flocks. Their example reminds us that dedicated service requires a firm commitment, at times even heroic sacrifice. If you are the shepherd or shepherdess of your family, your students, your clients, or any such responsibility it will entail challenges as well as comforts. Faithful followers of Christ the Good Shepherd are called to be good shepherds offering selfless service graciously. “A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (Jn 10:11)