I “The Lord is my shepherd…” (Ps 23,1) Over the years I have celebrated hundreds of funeral masses and at a great majority of these funeral masses we have sung the beautiful psalm that proclaims the goodness of the shepherd who is always “at my side.” (v.4) There is great comfort in this beautiful psalm and in the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd who personally cares for his sheep. His care is so all encompassing that “there is nothing that I lack.” (v.1) The image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is one of the most ancient images and was embraced by the early Church. In the catacombs of the early Church community we find the image of the Good Shepherd adorning the walls and the tombs of those who had died in Christ. Under the watchful eye and protective presence of the Good Shepherd, no harm would come to the sheep, even when faced with the dark valley of death. Jesus had given to his community of believers the blessed assurance that, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish. No one can take them out of my hand.” (John 10,28) To live under the care of the Good Shepherd is to know eternal life and to be assured that, “Only goodness and love will pursue me all the days of my life; I will dwell in the house of the Lord for years to come.” (Ps 23,6) The sheep entrusted to the care of the Good Shepherd does not need to fear the pursuit of the wolves and those who threaten evil for the Shepherd is always watching over them, especially at the moment of the passage from this life to the eternal green pastures of life in heaven.
Jesus as the Good Shepherd is the fulfillment of a promise that God made to his people through the prophet Ezekiel, “For thus says the Lord God: I myself will look after and tend my sheep. As a shepherd tends his flock when he finds himself among his scattered sheep, so will I tend my sheep. I will rescue them from every place where they were scattered when it was cloudy and dark…I myself will pasture my sheep; I myself will give them rest, says the Lord God.” (Ez 34,11f.15) As the Good Shepherd, Jesus is the image of the personal love, care and guidance that God the Father has for each of his sheep. The sheep of the flock of God the Father are those who believe in the Son. Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” (Jn 10,27) To believe in the love of God and to follow the “right path” (Ps 23,3) of the Son is to recognize the voice of truth and love that speaks to the heart of every sheep. Jesus knows us and calls each of us by name in a very personal relationship of friendship with us. Like a Good Shepherd, he knows our strengths and he is well acquainted with our weaknesses and vulnerabilities. The voice of the Good Shepherd speaks to the heart of his sheep and they are able to hear this voice and follow in his way because they trust in him. All of us need to be able to hear the still, small voice of God, speaking to us through our Good Shepherd who is one with the Father in the love of the Spirit.
Jesus is both Shepherd and Lamb. As both Shepherd and Lamb, he lays down his life for his sheep. (Jn 10,11) He keeps them from the harm of the wolves and he offers himself as a sacrificial lamb in their place for their sins. No lambs need to die for sin because Christ, the Lamb of God, has died once and for all for sin. Now, “the Lamb who is in the center of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to springs of life-giving water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Rev 7,17) Jesus, the Lamb of God, is meek and humble of heart and lives in obedience to the Father. We need to imitate the love of the Shepherd and the Lamb.
On the Fourth Sunday of Easter we celebrate Good Shepherd Sunday and we remember the Lamb that was slain who dies no more but lives now eternally with the Father, having been raised up to glory and seated on the throne of glory. We remember the Good Shepherd who came among us so that we might “have life and have it more abundantly.” (Jn 10,10) We listen for the voice of the Shepherd who is calling us to new life and leading us to streams of life-giving waters. We remember that we are part of a flock that all listen to the voice of the Shepherd and who follow in his ways but who also are personally known to the Lord and called by name, and forever safe in his gentle hands.