This, the Fourth Sunday of Easter, is often referred to as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” The brief Gospel passage from John recounts Jesus saying, “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” Not infrequently we hear ourselves or others say, “If only He would tell me exactly what I am supposed to do….” Are we looking for a computer printout of our daily duties? Perhaps we want to know exactly what we must do so that we will have time afterward for what we want to do. We are the sheep, the followers of Jesus, and he says his sheep hear his voice. Yet we do not always hear him give us the explicit instructions we think we need. Then again, there are times when we do hear him speak deep within ourselves. Perhaps we are listening more often with our ears rather than with our hearts.
In the first reading, Paul and Barnabas, who are good listeners and faithful sheep, show that they are also shepherds. They boldly proclaim the word of God in Antioch. Seeing the Apostles’ success in bringing souls to accept Christ, the local Jews react with jealousy and begin to violently contradict whatever Paul says. Whereupon he announces that he will turn to the Gentiles, who are delighted to receive the good news. The Gentiles, looked down upon by the Jews, are filled with gratitude and joy at being favored by the Lord. They become members of the Lord’s flock tended by Paul and Barnabas. The Lord spoke to the hearts of the Gentiles through the ministry of the Apostles. The Gospel message was not simply about what they had to do, but about accepting who they are, children of the Father, set free by the life, death and Resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ. Paul and Barnabas become targets of religious persecution by the “women of prominence” and “the leading men of the city.” Persecution has the paradoxical effect of uniting the believers and thereby strengthening the Church. Perhaps this is what the Lord is doing today as the Church faces scandal and attack from within as well as from outside.
Sheep are not among God’s most intelligent creatures. Without a shepherd, they are quite vulnerable. When attacked by wolves, they scatter and then, having no defense, simply cower and await their fate. The shepherd’s task is multifold: he protects them, leads them to good pasture for food, and directs them to the safety of the sheepfold at night. The sheep know little of all this, but they do recognize their shepherd’s voice. To follow that voice means everything for them.
We are smarter than sheep, but our own intelligence can become our downfall when we think that we know what is best for us. Then we don’t believe we really need a shepherd to lead us – except perhaps when we get into situations beyond our control. Then we want help fast! We tend to want it both ways: I’ll be in control, Lord, but you should stay around as my co-pilot and take over when I’m about to crash.
What really interferes with our being faithful followers of the Good Shepherd is our lack of faith. The fundamental message of the Easter Season is that the risen life comes after suffering and death. But part of us is not yet convinced that if we let go and die to ourselves we will be raised up to new life. Today’s reading from Revelation gives us a graphic image of the glory of the risen life: “I, John, had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue…. These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress.” These victors have lived by faith in the Good Shepherd, the Son of God. In spite of fears, doubts, persecutions and the lack of a clear “to do list” from God, they listened to his voice in the silence of their hearts and followed him. They trusted that in him they had been cleansed of sin and made righteous in his sight. They washed their robes (souls) in the Blood of the Lamb.
These saints who “stand before God’s throne and worship him day and night” show us the great fruit of listening to the voice of the Shepherd and following him. He loves us and calls us to himself. Each of us shares this same call and destiny: to hear and to follow Jesus to the house of the Father. And no one can take us out of the Father’s hand!
Who has been the role model in my life and why? Am I so independent that I am not willing to ask God or anyone for help? Unlike the sheep, God gives me intellect, will, and choice. Will I allow myself to be vulnerable to the will of God?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 15, no. 4. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.