The Fourth Sunday of Easter is traditionally called Good Shepherd Sunday, for the readings focus on how our risen Lord Jesus is our shepherd, who leads us to eternal life. But of course the flip side of the Lord being our shepherd, is that we are His sheep. We sometimes miss the humor of the Lord calling us sheep. The Lord could have said that we are strong and swift as horses, beautiful as gazelles, or brave as lions. But instead, he said we are like sheep. I guess I’ve been called worse, but it’s a little humbling and embarrassing, really. And yet sheep are worthwhile animals and they have a certain quality that makes them pretty smart, as we shall see. Are you smarter than a sheep? Well, let’s look and see how we stack up as we look at this gospel in three stages.
I. The Situation of the Sheep – In this Gospel the Lord is speaking to Pharisees and seeking almost to reassure them that he is not like other false shepherds—false messiahs who have led many astray in recent years. Jesus says, 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. …All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. …A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy.
The times in which Jesus lived were times of great social unrest and political turmoil. There were heightened expectations of a coming messiah who would liberate Israel from its Roman and Herodian oppressors. Given the climate of the times, most had emphasized the role of the messiah as a political and economic liberator who would come, wage war, and then triumphantly reestablish the Davidic Monarchy in all its worldly glory.
Josephus, a Jewish historian of the time, may have exaggerated (but only a little) when he spoke of 10,000 insurrections in the years leading up to the Jewish War with the Romans (66–70 AD). But even as early as Jesus’ lifetime there had been many conflicts and bloody uprisings led by numerous false messiahs. It is most likely these whom Jesus calls “thieves and robbers.” It is also the likely explanation for Jesus’ resistance to being called Messiah, except in very specific circumstances (Matt 16:16,20; Mk 8:30; Mk 14:62).
Jesus also warned that after he ascended, false messiahs would continue to plague the land:
For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect—if that were possible. See, I have told you ahead of time. “So if anyone tells you, ‘There he is, out in the desert,’ do not go out; or, ‘Here he is, in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it (Matt 24:24-26).
Ultimately these false Christs did arise and mislead many, and the results were horrible. Josephus says that 1.2 million Jewish people lost their lives during the Jewish War with the Romans.
So here is the situation of the sheep. Jesus speaks of the dangers of false messiahs and false saviors, and He denounces them unambiguously as thieves and robbers. We too live in a world in which many erroneous philosophies, false messiahs, and “saviors” seek to claim our loyalties and engage us in their error.
Perhaps it is the false claims of materialism, a theory which says that the right combination of wealth and power can bring meaning and happiness. And sadly many of the “prosperity Gospel” preachers expound this by their silence on the cross and sin.
Perhaps it is the error of secularism, which exalts the state and the culture and puts their importance above that of God. Many in the Church and in the Protestant denominations (both clergy and lay) follow false shepherds and call others to do so. They seek to align their faith more closely with their politics, instead of adjusting their politics to agree with their faith; they show more allegiance to their “party” than to the Faith; they do not address the errors associated with their political point of view; they are more likely to see their political leaders as shepherds than they are to view their bishops or priests in that way. Many also follow the false shepherds of our culture and look there for moral leadership rather than to God, the Scriptures, or the Church. If Miley Cyrus says it, it must be so. But if the Church says something, there is anger and protest. Yes, false messiahs are all around us in the secular culture, and sadly, many Catholics and Christians follow them like sheep to the slaughter.
Perhaps it is the arrogance of modern times, which claims a special enlightenment over previous eras (such as the biblical era) which were “less enlightened and tolerant.” Here too, many false shepherds in the clothing of trendy preachers and theologians have sought to engage God’s people in the sort of arrogance that thinks we moderns have “come of age” and may safely ignore the wisdom of the past as expressed in the Scriptures and in sacred Tradition.
Perhaps it is the promiscuity of this age, which claims sexual liberty for itself but never counts the cost in terms of broken lives, broken families, STDs, AIDS, high divorce rates, teenage pregnancy, abortion, and so on. Sadly, many so-called preachers and supposedly Christian denominations now bless homosexual unions and ordain clergy who are practicing the homosexual “lifestyle.” Many also support abortion and contraception, and speak little or nothing about premarital sex (fornication).
Yes the sheep are still afflicted, and false philosophies and messiahs abound. Jesus calls those false saviors thieves and marauders (robbers) because they want to steal from us what the Lord has given, and harm us by leading us astray. Their wish is ultimately to slaughter and destroy.
Do not be misled by the soft focus of these wolves in sheep’s clothing, by their message of “tolerance” and humanitarian concern. A simple look at the death toll in the 20th century from such ideologies shows the actual wolf lurking behind these foolish and evil trends that have misled the flock.
And as for these false shepherds, remember this: not one of them ever died for you. Only Jesus did that.
II. The Shepherd of the Sheep – Having rejected false shepherds, Jesus now goes on to describe himself as the true Shepherd:
But whoever enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 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.“
Now this passage tells us not only of the true Shepherd, but also of his true sheep. For the true Shepherd is sent by the Father who is the gatekeeper and has opened the way for the Son, and True Shepherd. The Father has confirmed the Son both by signs and wonders, and by the fulfillment of prophesies in abundance.
And of the true sheep the Lord says that they not only recognize His voice, but also that they will run from a stranger because they do not recognize his voice.
In sheep herding areas, flocks belonging to different shepherds are often brought together in fenced-off areas for the night, especially in the cooler months. And one may wonder how shepherds can tell which sheep belong to which shepherd. Ultimately the sheep sort themselves out. For in the morning a shepherd will go to the gate and summon, with a chant-like call, his sheep. Those that recognize his voice will run to him; those that do not will recoil in fear. Now that’s actually pretty smart! Sheep may not know how to go to the moon and back, but they DO know their master’s voice.
And so the question for us is, “Are we smarter than sheep?” Sheep have the remarkable quality of knowing their master’s voice, and of instinctively fearing any other voice and fleeing from it.
In this matter, it would seem that sheep are smarter than are most of us. For we do not flee voices contrary to Christ. Instead we draw close and say, “Tell me more.” In fact we spend a lot of time and pay a lot of money to listen to other voices. We spend large amounts of money to buy televisions so that the enemy’s voice can influence us and our children. We spend huge amounts of time with TV, radio, and the Internet. And we can be drawn so easily to the enemy’s voice.
And not only do we NOT flee it, we feast on it. And instead of rejecting it, we turn and rebuke the voice of God, and put His Word on trial instead of putting the world on trial.
The goal for us is to be more wary, like sheep, and to recognize only one voice: that of the Lord speaking though his Church, and then to flee every other voice.
Are you smarter than a sheep? You decide.
III. The Salvation of the Sheep – The text says, Amen, amen, I say to you, I am the gate for the sheep. I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. …I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.
Here then is the description of the Christian life: acceptance, access, and abundance.
- Acceptance – The text says we must enter through the gate, and the gate is Christ. We are invited to accept the offer of being baptized into Christ Jesus. In today’s first reading (from Acts), Peter and the other apostles are asked by the repentant and chastened crowd: “What are we to do, my brothers?” Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. …“Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand persons were added that day. Yes we are invited to enter through the gate, to be baptized into Christ Jesus, for He is the gate and the way to the Father.
- Access – In accepting baptism, we enter through the gate and now have access to the wide and green pastures. Jesus describes this entry as being saved. Now we tend to think of salvation rather abstractly, almost as if we were now in some new legal category, having gone from being guilty to having the charges dismissed. But this represents only a very limited understanding of salvation. The Greek word σωθήσεται (sothesetai) more fully means to be “safe, rescued,” delivered out of danger and into safety. The word in the New Testament is used principally to refer to God rescuing believers from the penalty and power of sin—and bringing them into His safety and grace. So, being saved is more than just changing legal categories; it is new life! It is power over sin; it is being kept safe from the poison of sin and its terrible enslaving effects. Salvation is also related to the concept of health (salus = health and well being). Hence for the believer who accepts Christ’s offer, there is now access to the protected pasture; there is the supply or provision of grazing land as well. For the Lord feeds his faithful and brings them strength. Yes, there is access to God’s many gifts.
- Abundance – The Lord concludes by saying that He came in order that we might have life more abundantly. And here is the fundamental purpose of all He did: that we might live more abundantly. Abundant life is really the root of what is meant by eternal life. For eternal does not refer merely to the length of life, but even more, to the fullness of life. And while we will not enjoy this completely until Heaven, it DOES begin now. We, through Christ our good shepherd, become gradually, more fully alive. Although I am over fifty years old, and my body in some physical sense is less alive than it used to be, my soul is more alive than ever! I have more joy, more confidence, more peace, and more contentment. I struggle less with many sins and have a greater capacity to love and to forgive. The Lord has granted this by giving me access to His pasture and His grace, and feeding me there. I am more abundantly alive at fifty-three than I ever was at twenty-three. Yes, the Lord came that we might have life more abundantly—I am a witness of this. Eternal life has already begun in me and is growing day by day.
So, are you smarter than a sheep? Then run to Jesus. Flee every other voice. Enter the sheepfold and let Him give you life.
This song says, “I said I wasn’t gonna tell nobody, but I couldn’t keep it to myself what the Lord has done for me. …And then I started walkin’, started talkin’, started singin’, started shoutin’ O what the Lord has done for me.” Enjoy an old gospel classic.