April 24, 2015

Rejoice in the Lord

The Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep

Archbishop Joseph W. TobinOne of my columns this past Lent reflected on the theme, “the smell of the sheep, the voice of the shepherd.”

My reflections were based on the rather startling statement of Pope Francis that disciples of Jesus Christ who are fully engaged in missionary work (at home and abroad) should take on “the smell of the sheep.” I also recalled a classmate in the seminary who, based on his own farming experience, protested against our being compared to sheep because he said, “Sheep are the stupidest animals in the barnyard; they are timid and they smell bad.”

In this Lenten column, I recalled the fact that my seminary professors would respond to my friend’s objection about being compared to sheep by pointing out that Jesus’ repeated use of this image underscored how the shepherds of his time led the sheep. Their one instrument was the quality of their voices. In the Middle East even today, when shepherds allow their flocks to mingle, all an individual shepherd has to do is begin to sing. As Jesus tells us, the sheep know their shepherd’s voice, and they will come to him.

The Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, which we also call Good Shepherd Sunday, offers an equally startling image: A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep (Jn 10: 11-18). Rather than abandon his flock when the wolf comes, the way a hired hand who is not a shepherd and whose sheep are not his own would do, a good shepherd sacrifices his own life for the sake of his sheep.

A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. We have heard this so often over the years, that it has become a familiar saying. But think for a moment. What kind of fool would give up his own life for “the stupidest animals in the barnyard”? Surely there is nothing to be gained by sacrificing your life for a bunch of sheep—even if you are a shepherd who owns your own flock. Better to save yourself and let the wolf devour the sheep!

Not so, Jesus tells us. “I am the good shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father, and I will lay down my life for the sheep” (Jn 10:14-15). The bond between this good shepherd (Jesus) and the flock he calls his own (us) is so intimate, so close, that he freely gives his life for us. “No one takes it from me,” Jesus insists, “I lay it down on my own” (Jn 10:18).

What are we to make of this startling paradox? Pope Francis would call our attention to the depths of God’s mercy. The Father gives up his only Son to ransom us, the lost sheep, and to bring us back into the one flock, into the unity that can only be found in the love that God has for us. The Son, for his part, freely agrees to lay down his life for his sheep. “I have the power to lay it down,” Jesus says speaking about his life, “and the power to take it up again. This command I have received from my Father” (Jn 10:18).

This paradox only makes sense in the context of Easter joy. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep, and then takes it up again. Resurrection follows painful humiliation and death on the cross. Unimaginable sorrow is succeeded by immeasurable joy!

A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. Let’s not take this saying for granted. Too much is at stake. What the shepherd freely gives up is precious and irreplaceable. For our sake, God abandons the safety and security of his divinity and becomes one of us, one of the sheep. He leads us out of the darkness of sin and death by taking on human flesh, and then freely letting go of it.

The result is our freedom and our joy. Because our good shepherd has loved us, and given up his life for us, we now know him “just as the Father knows me and I know him.” In the voice of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, we recognize the voice of God. He knows us and we know him—intimately.

As we continue our celebration of this joy-filled Easter season, let’s be sure to thank God for the paradox of his merciful love. And let’s ask our Lord to inspire us to take upon ourselves “the smell of the sheep,” so that we can follow his example of self-sacrificing love.

A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. †

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