This weekend is the Fourth Sunday of Easter, popularly called “Good Shepherd Sunday,” since the Gospel Reading at Mass highlights the pastoral aspect of the ministry of Jesus Christ. With the message of this Sunday being so full of shepherd-like tenderness and kindness, it can often fill the mind and heart with fond memories and warm recollection.
For example, on Good Shepherd Sunday, I’m usually reminded of the uniqueness and familiarity of the voice of my parents.
When I was a child, young people still predominantly played outside. We were a military family, and so we moved around every few years. On one of my father’s duty assignments, our home was near a large park and, at times, there could be a couple dozen children running around, playing, yelling, and screaming.
And yet, even in the midst of such youthful chaos, if my mother were to walk to the edge of the playground, and with a modest raising of her voice say our names or call out, “Kids!,” my siblings and I would hear her through the noise and commotion.
This was particularly true if my father, with his thunderous voice, were to call for us. No matter what games we were playing or what else was distracting our hearing, we would hear him. And whether it was mom or dad, if we heard them, we started running toward them to see what they wanted.
The image is very endearing. A voice speaks, a voice is heard, and a voice receives a response. Anyone can imagine such a scene: while children are playing, they hear a familiar voice, and then a small flock of them run to the recognized voice.
The response is so pastoral in appearance that children are oftentimes called “kids,” a term that is the proper designation for a young goat. It’s innocent, charming, and heartwarming. As such, it’s a perfect context in which the Lord Jesus can speak to us of his love and care for us.
This Sunday in the Gospel reading, the Lord Jesus tells us, “Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever does not enter a sheepfold through the gate but climbs over elsewhere is a thief and a robber. But whoever enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.”
Through the use of symbolic imagery, the Lord is identifying himself as a shepherd of souls. He distinguishes himself from others, who do not have a right disposition toward the sheep, and are therefore there to hurt or harm the sheep.
The Lord continues, “The gatekeeper opens it for him, and the sheep hear his voice, as the shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has driven out all his own, he walks ahead of them, and the sheep follow him, because they recognize his voice. But they will not follow a stranger; they will run away from him, because they do not recognize the voice of strangers.”
Following this identification as a shepherd, the Lord Jesus names the behavior of a good shepherd and the trusting response of the sheep. The shepherd is allowed in, as the Lord is sent by the Father. He does not sneak in or force himself into the sheepfold.
The shepherd speaks, he knows the names of his own sheep, and calls them to himself. As Pope Francis has popularly said, the shepherd knows “the smell” of his own sheep. The fold knows of the shepherd’s care. They hear his voice and meekly follow him.
The shepherd does not abandon the sheep or frighten them. He is attentive to them. He walks ahead of them and protects them. The shepherd gathers and leads the fold with care. By these actions, he creates a new community, which is formed by those who choose to follow him.
The Lord Jesus highlights the voice of the shepherd. The sheep can trust him and accompany him because they know his voice. He is known to them. In contrast, the sheep do not follow a stranger. He scatters them because the sheep run from strangers and are alarmed by those who seek to be shepherds but act like thieves and robbers.
As with the playground memory, if someone other than my parents had called out to me and expected me to follow them, the popular wisdom would have been employed, namely, “Stranger, danger!” We would not follow the stranger, avoid them with suspicion, and run for help if they kept calling us.
The good shepherd, therefore, is “good” precisely because he – and his care – are known by his sheep. The Lord Jesus relies upon this knowledge of the sheep, and so identifies himself as our shepherd. And on this Good Shepherd Sunday, he once again calls out to us, and offers us his love and care.
Do we hear him? And will we follow him?
Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.