We have arrived at the second Sunday of Lent, and hopefully by now we are well into the work of repentance that Lent requires. I’m doing something a little different on this Sunday. Usually if I preach on this Sunday my task is to give yet another homily on the healing of the paralytic, which comes up all too often in the liturgical year. To spare myself that difficulty, we have read in addition to that Gospel the one that is prescribed for the saint who is celebrated every year on the second Sunday of Lent, Gregory Palamas. The Gospel prescribed for his feast is the common for bishops (Jn. 10:9-16), which is the Good Shepherd reading from the Gospel of John. I often have to preach about the paralytic, but rarely do I have the opportunity to preach on the Good Shepherd, since it doesn’t usually occur on Sundays, so I thought I’d make use of that opportunity today.
I think the mystery of Christ as the Good Shepherd is appropriate for Lent, perhaps even more so than the mystery of his healing the paralytic. Let’s try to see why. There are actually two main images of the Good Shepherd in the Gospels, even though John is the only one actually to use that term. In Matthew and Luke, Jesus doesn’t explicitly call Himself a shepherd at all, but rather tells a parable in which it becomes clear that He is in fact the shepherd of his flock.
There the image is of a shepherd who goes out in search of the lost sheep. This is quite an appropriate Lenten image, since we can all identify with a lost sheep, due to our sins. I would hope that none of us is so filled with pride as to think he or she is safely among the righteous who need no repentance. Our consolation and our confidence therefore are not based on our own goodness or faithfulness but on the mercy of Jesus, who comes looking for us when we inevitably stray from his word and end up lost in the wilderness of sin and selfishness. When He finds the lost sheep He returns rejoicing, and He says the angels of Heaven rejoice with Him. We too ought to rejoice when we discover that the Lord has been searching for us, and thus our return should be something like that of the prodigal son: aware of our sins and unworthiness, yet glad and grateful to be received back into the Father’s house.
When we look at the image of the Good Shepherd in John’s Gospel, we see it is more powerful still. Here the shepherd is described not as one who goes in search of his sheep, but one who lays down his life for his sheep. Here our Lenten journey already looks ahead to the Passion of Jesus. This aspect of the Good Shepherd goes beyond that of one who simply searches for his lost sheep, for it manifests the fullness of his love. “Greater love has no man,” Jesus would later say, “than that he lay down his life for his friends.” Here we also see that Jesus considers his flock to be his friends, not merely the objects of his responsibility.
Let us see what else Jesus has to say about Himself in the Gospel of the Good Shepherd. He first of all establishes the intimate relationship He has with his flock. There are three ways He expresses this. First of all, Jesus says that He calls his own sheep by name. This is a way of saying that He knows them personally and that He has special regard for them. When Moses begged the Lord to help him lead his people, God responded by saying: “This very thing that you have spoken I will do; for you have found favor in my sight and I know you by name” (Ex. 33:17). So that is where we start: Jesus knows us by name, we are special to Him; He calls us by name, as the Gospel says, and leads us as a shepherd his sheep.
The next expression of his relationship with his flock is that they follow Him because they recognize his voice. So it is not only that He knows his sheep by name; He is well enough known by his sheep that they recognize his voice. They don’t follow strangers, because they don’t recognize the voice of strangers. That is, we are able to distinguish good from evil because we can tell the counsels of the Lord from the temptations of the devil. We don’t follow the voice of the tempter, because we know he hates us and intends to harm us. But we follow the voice of the Good Shepherd because we know He loves us and intends to do only good to us.
The final expression of the Shepherd’s relationship to us is the most simple and intimate: “I know my own and my own know me.” This is related to the language of mutual abiding that we find often expressed in the Gospel of John: “Abide in me and I in you.” In biblical language, this is the deepest meaning of knowing and being known. Eternal life itself is expressed by Jesus in terms of knowing the Father and the Son (see Jn. 17:3).
So Jesus calls us by name and leads us, and we follow because we recognize his voice, and this is because we know Him and He knows us. The fruit of all this is that Jesus loved his sheep enough to lay down his life for them.
But why did He need to lay down his life for us? It’s because there is an enemy threatening the flock. The enemy is first characterized as a thief, whose intention is to steal, kill, and destroy. Jesus’ intention is just the opposite. He came to give life, and give it abundantly. The enemy is then likened to a wolf, who snatches whatever sheep he can and through his ferocity scatters the rest of the flock. Since Jesus is the Good Shepherd and not a hireling who runs away at the first sight of danger, He fights to the death to save his flock.
Jesus’ characterization of the enemy as first a thief and then a wolf gives us some indication as to the identity and the tactics of the devil. The image of the thief is what we might first encounter. The thief is slick and deceptive and does not let on as to what his real intentions are, for he wants to catch us off guard and rob us while we’re not paying attention. He robs us of virtue and destroys the life of our souls. But once we have either unmasked him or simply succumbed to his deceptions, his true nature is manifested. He doesn’t need to play the con man anymore; he is just a ferocious beast, and when he no longer needs his finesse, he just goes straight for the kill. But the Good Shepherd is there to protect us and fight for us, if we will choose to stand with Him and not succumb to the wolf out of weakness or fear. This moment is the one in which we most need to recognize the Master’s voice, and to take refuge in the fact that we know Him and He knows us.
This Gospel is read for the feast days of holy bishops because they are called to do for their flocks what Christ does for his. This is not an easy task, as anyone who has ever attempted to lead others knows all too well. It has been said that it is impossible to get sheep to walk single file; they will resist all your efforts to get them to follow in any sort of orderly fashion. Each wants to go his own way. You’re lucky if you can get them to walk more or less in the same direction. This is what individual leaders of small flocks have to contend with, and what the Leader of the universal flock has to contend with. But the Lord will give life to whoever chooses to follow Him, all those who recognize his voice and refuse to follow the soul-snatching thieves and wolves.
The bishops who have become saints have done so because they were faithful in imitating the Chief Shepherd and cooperating with his grace. But there’s a deeper reason still: their personal love for Jesus. If they were not first sheep who knew Jesus and recognized his voice and followed Him, they could not be shepherds of others. Jesus showed us this when he commissioned his very first and primary shepherd, St Peter. Jesus had first to draw from Peter his threefold profession of love, and only then did He say, “Feed my sheep.” Note too that Jesus made it clear that they were his sheep, not Peter’s. Peter was a shepherd, but only as a delegate of the one true and Good Shepherd.
So how shall we benefit from the message of this Gospel as we continue with our Lenten efforts? The first thing we have to establish is the quality of our relationship with the Good Shepherd. Are we able to recognize his voice as He calls us by name, and do we follow Him? Or do we carelessly follow the voice of strangers who try to deceive us into doing things not consistent with the word of the Master? He knows us, but do we know Him—and how well do we know Him? He has laid down his life for us; do we know and love Him well enough to lay down our lives for Him? We might say, sure, I would die for Him, just make it quick and painless. But it’s easier to die for Him than it is to live for Him. That is because living for Jesus requires a daily dying to sin and to all that is suggested by the voice of strangers and thieves. Day after day, year after year; it’s not easy. It requires making a constant choice to do what our vocation demands, and not just taking the easy way or rationalizing to ourselves that we are in fact among the righteous who don’t wander away.
Following the Good Shepherd is safe and secure, but it is not easy. If we are not constantly listening for his voice we will be deceived by other voices, and there are plenty of other voices out there.
So let us stay close to Jesus. We have the words of the Scriptures, the teachings of the Church and her sacraments. We have the spiritual means of prayer and fasting to purify our hearts so that we can more easily recognize the Master’s voice. Jesus loved us enough to die for us. Let us love Him enough to live for Him. Jesus came that we might have life, and have it abundantly. The only way to do this is to have it in Him. For Jesus said that He alone is the door to the sheepfold, that is, the only way to Heaven. If we enter by Him, we will be saved. Safe in the hand of the Good Shepherd, no thief will deceive or rob us, no wolf will snatch or devour us, but there will be one flock of the blessed, one Shepherd, one Spirit of truth and love and joy, to the eternal glory of God the Father.