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. Of course the flip side is that we are sheep. We sometimes miss the humor of the Lord calling us sheep. He could have said we are strong and swift as horses, beautiful as gazelles, or brave as lions; instead, He said we are like sheep. I guess I’ve been called worse, but it’s a little humbling and embarrassing, really. Yet sheep are worthwhile animals and they have a certain quality that makes them pretty smart. 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 almost trying to reassure them that He is not like other false shepherds, false messiahs who have led many astray. 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 ones of 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 and wage war and victoriously 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 A.D.). Even as early as Jesus’ lifetime there had been conflicts and bloody uprisings led by numerous false messiahs. It is most likely these whom Jesus refers to as thieves and robbers. It is also likely why Jesus resisted 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; the results were horrible. Josephus wrote that 1.2 million Jewish people lost their lives in the Jewish War with the Romans.
So this is the situation of the sheep. Jesus speaks of the dangers of false saviors, unambiguously denouncing them as thieves and robbers. We, too, are in a world in which erroneous philosophies and false messiahs seek to claim our loyalties and engage us in error.
Perhaps it is the false claims of materialism, which says the right combination of wealth and power can bring meaning and happiness. Sadly, many of the “prosperity Gospel” preachers compound this by their silence about the cross and sin.
Perhaps it is the error of secularism, which exalts the State and the culture, putting their importance above 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 more closely align their faith with politics, instead of their politics with faith; they show more allegiance to the “party” than to the Faith; they do not prophetically address the errors associated with their political point of view; they see their political leaders as shepherds than they do their bishops or priests. Many also follow the false shepherds of culture, looking to them 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 are protests and anger. Yes, false messiahs are all around us in the secular culture. 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 this sort of arrogance: that we moderns have “come of age” and may safely ignore the wisdom of the past in the Scriptures and sacred Tradition.
Perhaps it is the promiscuity of this age, which claims sexual liberty for itself but never counts the cost in 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, while saying little or nothing about premarital sex.
Yes, the sheep are still afflicted; false philosophies and messiahs abound. Jesus calls them 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, with their message of “tolerance” and humanitarian concern. A simple look at the death toll in the 20th century from such ideologies shows the wolf lurking behind these foolish and evil trends that have misled the flock.
As to these false shepherds, remember that not one of them ever died for you; only Jesus did that.
II. The Shepherd and His 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.
This passage tells us not only of the true Shepherd, but also his true sheep. 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 by signs and wonders and by the fulfillment of prophesies in abundance.
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 shepherding areas, flocks belonging to different shepherds are often brought together in fenced-off areas for the night, especially during the cooler months. One may wonder how shepherds can tell which sheep belong to which shepherd. Ultimately the sheep sort themselves out. In the morning a shepherd will go to the gate and summon his sheep with a chant-like like call. Those that recognize his voice will run to him; those that do not will recoil in fear. Now that’s pretty smart, actually. Sheep may not know how to go to the moon and back, but they do know their master’s voice.
So the question for each of us is this: are you smarter than a sheep? Sheep have the remarkable ability to know their master’s voice and instinctively fear any other voice, fleeing from it.
In this way, it would seem that sheep are smarter than most of us are! 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 money to listen to other voices. We spend buy big televisions so that the enemy’s voice can influence us and our children. We spend a lot of time watching television, listening to the radio, and surfing the Internet. We are drawn so easily to the enemy’s voice.
Not only do we not flee it, we feast on it. Instead of rebuking it, we rebuke the voice of God. We put His Word on trial instead of putting the world on trial.
The goal for us is to be more wary, like sheep, to recognize only one voice, that of the Lord speaking though His Church, fleeing every other voice.
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 that 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. He is the gate and the way to the Father.
Access – In accepting baptism, we enter through the gate and have access to the wide, green pastures. Jesus describes this entry as “being saved.” Most of us tend to think of salvation rather abstractly, as if it is the result of a legal process through which one goes from being guilty to having the charges dismissed. That, however, is only a very partial understanding of salvation. The Greek word σωθήσεται (sothesetai) more fully means to be safe, rescued, delivered out of danger and into safety. In the New Testament it is used principally of God rescuing believers from the penalty and power of sin—bringing them into his into His safety and grace. Being saved is much more than changing legal categories; it is new life! It is power over sin; it is being kept from the poison of sin and its terrible enslaving effects. Salvation is also related to the concept of health (salus = health and well being). For the believer who accepts Christ’s offer, there is access to the protected pasture; there is supply or provision of grazing land as well. 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 so that we might have life more abundantly. This is the fundamental purpose of all he did. Abundant life is really what is meant by eternal life. Eternal does not refer merely to the length of life, but even more so its fullness. And while we will not enjoy this fully until Heaven, it does begin now. We, through Christ our good shepherd, gradually become more fully alive. I am more than fifty years old and my body in some physical sense is less alive, but my soul is more alive than ever! I have more joy, more confidence, more peace, and more contentment. There are many sins with which I now struggle less. I have a greater capacity to love and to forgive. The Lord has granted this by giving me access to His grace and His pasture, and feeding me there. I am more abundantly alive today than I ever was in my twenties. 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? If you are, then run to Jesus. Flee every other voice. Enter the sheepfold and let Him give you life.
Here is a portion of a performance of Handel’s Pastoral Symphony of the Messiah: