April 25, 2021
Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year B
The figure of the shepherd, in the Old Testament, refers first of all to God: it is He Who led the Israelites out of Egypt, Who walked before them, nourished and cared for them, and caused them to grow.
But also the kings, the guides of Israel, the leaders, the priests are often compared to shepherds: they should have the same concern for the people, the same care that God had for Israel.
It is not always so, and often Israel, on its journey, has the experience of finding evil shepherds, who, instead of feeding the flock, feed themselves.
It is the same God to blame them, to judge them: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel. Prophesy and say to those shepherds, ‘Thus says the Lord God, “Woe, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flock? You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool; you slaughter the fat sheep without feeding the flock. Those who are sickly you have not strengthened, the diseased you have not healed, the broken you have not bound up, the scattered you have not brought back, nor have you sought for the lost; but with force and with severity you have dominated them. They were scattered for lack of a shepherd, and they became food for every beast of the field and were scattered” (Ez 34:2-5).
In chapter 10 of John’s Gospel, from which we read verses 11-18, Jesus shows Himself as a Good Shepherd, or rather, the “beautiful” (kalos, Gk) shepherd, as the text literally states.
Why is Jesus the Good Shepherd?
First of all, because He prevents the wolf from snatching and scattering the sheep (Jn 10:12).
These are two great dangers that threaten the flock: that the sheep may be snatched and that they may be scattered.
The verb snatch occurs two other times in this chapter: in verses 28 and 29, Jesus says that, in His and in His Father hands, the sheep are safe and no one can snatch them from their hands.
The wolf wants to snatch them, to make them his possession, to release them from their relationship with the shepherd, to pull them away from his hands. He wants to interrupt the good relationship that exists between the flock and its shepherd.
And then he wants to scatter them: the wolf sets his sights on this, to disperse the flock, to divide it. That it may no longer be a flock, but scattered sheep that go each their own way. And as a result, where the relationship with the shepherd fails, inevitably, the relationship between the member of the flock also fails: there is no longer anyone that holds them together.
A little further on, in the farewell discourses, Jesus will again use this verb. He will tell that, during the passion, the disciples will be scattered each to his own, and they will leave Him alone (Jn 16:32): for a moment, the wolf will seem to succeed in his aim.
To save the flock from these two dangers a simple hireling is not enough: the hireling has no interest in the flock, he does not have a relationship of belonging, of friendship with the sheep. In the face of danger, the hireling does not put his own life at risk.
If the wolf snatches and disperses, if the hireling abandons and flees, the good shepherd, on the contrary, knows and gathers together (Jn 10:14,16).
Knowing is synonymous with loving, and it speaks of a close relationship, of deep intimacy: one knows just what one loves.
So, Jesus speaks of wanting the same relationship of intimacy and love with His disciples that He has with the Father: He is the Good Shepherd because He wants to lead them there, to this beautiful life of relationship with His Father. He knows that no other relationship can genuinely nourish and bring life to them, except this.
He is also the Good Shepherd because He does not care only for a small number, the closest, the best: He always has “other sheep” (Jn 10:16) to care for, by gathering them so that together they form only one flock. The salvation that He offers is precisely this gathering together: not an individual and exclusive relationship with Him, but a communion that flows, that wants to expand boundaries and goes beyond friendship, that attracts everyone.
It is interesting that Jesus does not speak of only one sheepfold, but only of one flock: it’s like everyone listening to the one Word of salvation (Jn 10:16). It is this that unites, that brings together.
Because all this happens, Jesus lays down His life (Jn 10:17).
He wants to make it clear that it is He that gives it: no one takes it from Him, but He offers it for no other reason if not the love that unites Him to the Father, if not the sharing with Him the great desire that their relationship is open to welcome man himself.
And it is precisely through this gesture, this losing Himself for love, that in reality Jesus can find life again, and will find His relationship with the Father, Who loves Him precisely because He gave his life (Jn 10:17).
And He will rediscover His brothers and sisters, us, saved and wrenched from the hands of the enemy who wanted to snatch us, and lead us back in walking towards a life of ever more profound and real communion with the Father, behind Him and like Him.