The Fourth Sunday of Easter is traditionally called “Good Shepherd Sunday” and it’s the day upon which we pray especially for vocations. Somewhat awkwardly, however, this year (Year A of the liturgical cycle) there’s no explicit mention of the Good Shepherd in our Gospel Reading, taken from the start of chapter 10 of John. Jesus, in fact, makes a different claim in today’s Gospel: identifying himself as “the door”, or the “sheepgate”. It’s only in tomorrow’s Gospel — starting with verse 11 and following immediately where we stopped today at verse 10 — that Jesus says “I am the Good Shepherd”. And so one could be forgiven for thinking we’re left with something of a misnomer! It’s not so much Good Shepherd Sunday as “Sheepgate Sunday” but perhaps that has less of a ring to it?!
But reading both Gospel extracts from today and tomorrow together and more closely makes clear that the “the shepherd of the sheep” referred to today is the same “Good Shepherd” referred to tomorrow. And so it’s not such a misnomer after all, even if we might be stretching things a little.
I’m stressing this because I want to illustrate a general point: the importance of reading around any Biblical text — what precedes and what goes after — in order to situate it in its context so as to better understand the Word of God. There’s a nice line written by Malinowski, the founder of modern anthropology, which is that there’s “no text without context”.
So let me add two further points of context, if I may.
This Gospel reading starts a new chapter of John’s Gospel, chapter 10, and that might be because Jesus begins to addresses a new theme. But, Jesus is, in fact, midflow. The business of chapter 9, in which he is addressing the Pharisees, is ongoing. So the particular context in which Jesus makes these remarks might be lost if we don’t remind ourselves, by reading what precedes, where Jesus is and to whom He is speaking. From that, we learn that Jesus is still in Jerusalem addressing the Pharisees. Remember that from Chapter 9 that they were seeking to undermine the healing of the man born blind, and to discredit Jesus. And this is important because the Pharisees are precisely in view when Jesus refers to “thieves and robbers”, “strangers” and — by implication — the bad shepherds, as opposed to “The Good Shepherd”.
A final point of context, reading even further back than chapter 9, is the Old Testament, which is replete with imagery of the Good Shepherd. For a long time, the Jewish people had understood the image of the Good Shepherd as a figure of God. In Genesis, for example, Joseph was saved “By the power of the mighty one of Jacob, by the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel, the God of your father …” Such imagery was also used by Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Zechariah, and of course by David in his Psalms, such as that favourite which we read a few moments ago: “The Lord is my Shepherd; nothing shall I want.” The point is that throughout the Jewish history, God is portrayed as the ultimate Shepherd of the people, providing guidance, sustenance and protection so when Jesus makes this claim of himself, the implication is clear.
Now, if it is right that there’s “no text without context”, it’s also the case that there’s no context without text. And this Gospel text is so rich in meaning. I’d like to say something about the strange sheepgate image with which Jesus identifies and then look more closely at some of the details which serve to colour the story.
Before Jesus identifies himself as the sheepgate, he refers implicitly to two different types of sheepfold in use by sheep farmers of the time and place. In the first two verses he seems to have in mind the kind of “communal sheepfold” that each village would maintain and to which several shepherds might return their flocks each night. The pen was protected by a strong door that could be opened only by the chief shepherd’s key. The second type of sheepfold is described in subsequent verses. Such a containment was provided for those nights when the sheep were to be kept out in the fields. Such temporary sheepfolds usually consisted of a circle of rocks, with an opening at one end. The shepherd himself would serve as the gate to such sheepfolds, laying across its entrance to sleep. Whether a sheep tried to leave or a wolf tried to enter, they would have to do so by way of the shepherd himself! The shepherd himself was the door and this is what Jesus is referring to when he talks about himself as the “sheepgate”. What might seem a bizarre image to us is more readily understood by his listeners. Being the gate – a sort of protector – was just part of what being a shepherd entailed in first century Palestine, and is also a part of how Jesus shepherds us today.
How Jesus shepherds us — the goodness of the “Good Shepherd” — is to be found in other rich details of the story. So let’s look at three such details, briefly.
First, Jesus says that “he goes before them”. Whatever hardships we endure, including those of the present lockdown, Jesus has suffered them before us through his passion and death. And by his resurrection, he has trail-blazed for us a path to heaven if we follow Him: “anyone who enter by me… will be saved”, he says. The Shepherd doesn’t merely facilitate this heaven-bound path but leads out the sheep, we the people into pasture, into eternal life. This is what Jesus does and in what Christian discipleship consists. How does this happen?
That’s described in a second detail: The Good Shepherd calls the sheep by their name. You might not think that farmers call their sheep names but they often do! Dolly the sheep, for example, stands in a museum not 1/2 mile from this chapel. The Lord calls each of us by name; his initiative comes first. Now it wouldn’t be Good Shepherd Sunday if I didn’t say something about vocation. In the Church, we sometimes say that everyone has a vocation. But that’s not quite right. It’s more accurate to say that everyone is a vocation. We often think that our existence is a bald fact. But it isn’t. To exist at all is to be called by God. Everyone is a vocation but it’s difficult to hear the voice of God amidst the cacophony of noise in the world. That is why silence is so important for prayer, and for which during lockdown, there is ample opportunity, but only if we seize it, only if we work to preserve some silence in our day in which we can hear the Lord’s voice speaking to us, calling us by name.
A third and final detail: this calling provokes a response: “The sheep follow him, for they know his voice”. Knowing his voice entails discerning between good and bad. There were thieves and bad shepherds in Jesus’ time and there are thieves and bad shepherd’s in our own. I’ve mentioned the pharisees of Jesus’ time but we might ask ourselves who are the 21st century pharisees leading us astray? Take some moments to identify those people and things that lead you astray so that in your weakest moments, when you’re tempted half the battle is won. Bear in mind that the devil is subtle and wily and that he works from within as well as outwith. Once we have discerned the authentic from the phoney, and identified the masters voice, we must simply follow him, even like sheep.
Time and again throughout the Gospel, Jesus says two of the most powerful words ever uttered: “Follow me!” Nobody quite knows to where he is asking them to go when He utters the injunction, only that there is something inescapably compelling about the invitation. Now, I’m not going to make a cheap and cringeworthy sales pitch about why young men and young women should join the Order of Preachers and become Dominican Friars and Dominican Sisters. The merits of doing these things can’t be put across in a homily but can only be glimpsed by the testimony of our lives. But I am going to invite everybody to examine their consciences and ask themselves how, whether they are following the Lord’s call; how, whether they are encouraging others to do the same. It’s something we should all pray for, and today especially. Because the key task of our lives, especially when we’re young is to discover, in St. John Henry Newman’s words, what “definite service”, what “work”, what “mission” is entrusted to us. St. Catherine of Siena, whose feast we celebrated on Wednesday, wrote “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire”.
Dear young friends, I say to you directly: if you embrace your calling — whatever it might be — if you follow the Lord generously into whatever person the Lord is calling you to be, that though it may not always be easy, Our Lord Himself promises you life, and life in abundance! Do not be afraid! For to borrow from another of Our Lord’s agricultural metaphors: the labourers might sadly be few, but — make no mistake — the harvest is rich!
The Catholic Chaplaincy serves the students and staff of the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Napier University and Queen Margaret University.
The Catholic Chaplaincy is also a parish of the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh (the Parish of St Albert the Great) and all Catholic students and staff are automatically members of this parish.