The best incentive to embark enthusiastically on the path of holiness is to understand the immeasurable love of the Good Shepherd for each of His sheep.
Gospel – 4th Sunday of Easter
11 Jesus said: “I am the Good Shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 A hired man, who is not a shepherd and whose sheep are not his own, sees a wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away, and the wolf catches and scatters them. 13 This is because he works for pay and has no concern for the sheep. 14 I am the Good Shepherd, and I know mine and mine know Me, 15 just as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I will lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 This is why the Father loves Me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again. This command I have received from my Father” (Jn 10:11-18).
I – Jesus, the Good King
This Sunday’s Liturgy highlights the figure of the shepherd, created by the Divine Artisan to be used at a certain moment to symbolize himself.
Through the lips of the prophet Ezekiel, the Most High had denounced the wicked shepherds of Israel, those monarchs and priests who sought their own personal advantage at the expense of the flock entrusted to them: “The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the crippled you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them” (34:4). Consequently, he threatened to punish them and, as holy and reparative retribution, he promised: “For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out” (34:11).
This beautiful prophecy was fully realized, although in an unforeseen way, surpassing all expectations. In fact, the house of Judah lost its royal power after the Babylonian exile, at which time Ezekiel’s oracles resounded powerfully; the evil shepherds were deposed by the Lord of lords until the arrival of the true Son of David, the Liberator of Israel.
This future Shepherd would be distinguished by His goodness, that is to say, by His Heart overflowing with kindness towards the sheep. And so it was! Who could have imagined that the Second Person of the Trinity would assume our nature in the virginal womb of Mary Most Holy in order to bring salvation to mankind, gone astray by sin? Yes, the Eternal Word made flesh would become the Shepherd of Israel, as Ezekiel had announced: “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God” (34:15).
As Jesus journeyed through cities and villages, the Holy Gospels recount how He was moved with pity for the crowds who followed Him, “because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Mt 9:36). Then, as a Shepherd full of benevolence, gentleness and love, He taught them many things. Our Lord’s overflowing affection was manifested countless times throughout His public life, culminating in the pardon bestowed on His executioners on the Cross.
Thus was the most loving, strong and incomparable Monarch sent by the Father to redeem us and to give repose to those who fight for their own sanctification: “Come to Me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28).
It is this King, who loved us to the end, that the Gospel of the Fourth Sunday of Easter presents to us, in all the wonder of His splendour and grace.
II – “I Am the Good Shepherd”
In chapter 9 of his Gospel, St. John narrates the healing of the man blind from birth, an éclatant episode, not without certain ironic aspects, which brought the Pharisees’ humiliation to an apex. In the next chapter, we see Our Lord explaining to His listeners the reason for those miracles performed in favour of the neediest sheep. In so doing, He gave the public that accompanied Him sufficient elements to consider the colossal difference between Him, the Good Shepherd, and the hired men, that is to say, the members of the Sanhedrin.
The Good Shepherd and the mercenary
11 Jesus said: “I am the Good Shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 A hired man, who is not a shepherd and whose sheep are not his own, sees a wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away, and the wolf catches and scatters them. 13 This is because he works for pay and has no concern for the sheep.”
In calling himself the Good Shepherd, Our Lord compared himself to those who tended the flocks, whose mission was to find them fertile pasture and to be ready to defend them against the assaults of predators. Shepherds were certainly people accustomed to making sacrifices and being vigilant, but no shepherd, however zealous, would have been ready to die for the sheep! Jesus is, therefore, a shepherd never before seen, sui generis, who takes His love for the flock to the extreme of giving His life to protect it.
However, the hired man seeks only his own interests. As soon as he senses danger on the horizon, he abandons his charges, which are then killed and dispersed.
We must also understand to whom the Divine Saviour refers when He mentions wolves. By wolf can be understood, in the first place, the devil, compared by St. Peter to “a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet 5:8). Heretics or false prophets are also compared to such beasts, since they tear the flock apart with their lies and seductions. To these are added tyrants who, by subjecting the faithful to bloody or psychological persecution, seek to lead them to apostasy. Our Lord confronted all these wolves, and to overcome them once and for all He gave up His life as the Immaculate Lamb.
A divine love which exceeds all limits
14 “I am the Good Shepherd, and I know mine and mine know Me, 15 just as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I will lay down my life for the sheep.”
Jesus delights in repeating a refrain that resounds with all the force and sweetness of the divine word: “I am the Good Shepherd.” In the previous verses He was seen from a perspective of contrast with the hireling. Now, however, He presents himself as such through the fact that He has a relationship with the sheep similar to that between himself and the Father.
Indeed, Our Lord knows the Father, both as the Word of God and as true Man. In the first case, He is the perfect image of the Father; He fathoms and comprehends Him completely, loving Him with bonds of infinite charity. Considered in His humanity, substantially united to the divinity, Jesus Christ’s affection for the Father is the greatest in all of history. No human being has ever known and loved the First Person of the Blessed Trinity with such ardour, devotion and tenderness as He did. And it was because of this love that the Son, having become incarnate in the virginal womb of Mary, wished to immolate himself on Calvary.
In a similar way, the Good Shepherd knows His sheep and they know Him. Through the gift of grace, granted to the rational creature by the Redemption, an entirely divine intermingling is established between the Only-begotten Son and His brethren. He knows us in the light of the love which the Father has for each of His adopted children, and we know Him by reason of His divinity and His sacrifice on the Cross. Such a relationship far surpasses that which exists between mere men, however perfect or intelligent they may be. It is a true celestial interchange which begins on this earth and will reach its fullness when we see Him face to face.
Now such love must be translated into works, and for this reason Jesus again declares: “I will lay down my life for the sheep.” Begotten from all eternity by the Father, the Son was sent into the world to redeem men from slavery to sin and death. The price to be paid was high: to shed His Blood on the Cross, to the last drop. Most obedient in His humanity, He became flesh and took His love to the utmost extreme, giving himself up for us as a propitiatory victim.
Let us consider the boundless affection that the Good Shepherd bears us; let us understand the radical nature of the sacrifice He made for us and let us clearly perceive that love is repaid with love, as St. John explains in his first letter: “By this we know love, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (3:16). This is the horizon that these verses open up for us: to respond to the infinite charity of Our Lord by being ready to seek the good of our neighbours to the point of laying down our life for them. Only those with such a disposition of spirit can say that they know the Good Shepherd, because they share in the love that characterizes Him, surpassing every conceivable limit.
The sheep hear the voice of their Shepherd
16 “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd.”
Our Lord prophesies the future conversion of the pagans by announcing the existence of other sheep that in the future would also be led by Him, forming one flock under one Shepherd.
This is an enormous flock, described by the Book of Revelation in these terms: “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (7:9-10).
Will we be among this multitude? Will we have the joy of celebrating our triumph with Our Lord and the Blessed? To obtain this grace – the greatest of all! – there is only one condition: to hear the voice of the Shepherd. But what does this mean? It means paying attention to the Redeemer’s divine teachings and putting them into practice with fidelity and perfection.
In this manner, our divine filiation will reach its culmination in eternity, and we will enjoy an endless joy that cannot be expressed in our poor human vocabulary. St. John announces it this way: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. […] Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when He appears we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And every one who thus hopes in Him purifies himself as He is pure” (1 Jn 3:1-3).
Let us live with our interior sights fixed on the glory of the Good Shepherd in Heaven. Then we will receive the strength to be faithful in this life and, united to Christ’s immense flock, we will sing the glory of His victories and conquests for ever more.
The Good Shepherd’s love and obedience
17 “This is why the Father loves Me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again. This command I have received from my Father.”
Our Lord goes on to announce His Resurrection: “I lay down my life in order to take it up again.” No one would be able to inflict death on Jesus without His consent. Therefore, although the sacrifice of the Cross was the fruit of a plot by the agents of evil, it would never have taken place if it had not been a divine plan, as the Saviour reveals: “No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down on my own.”
This voluntary determination to face the sufferings of the Passion and the violence of death for love of the Father and humanity, places us once again before the immeasurable love of the Good Shepherd. Jesus makes a point of repeating the ideas in an almost poetic cadence, in order to convince us of the truths being avowed. It is a mystery of self-giving and of loving-kindness so great that we have difficulty understanding it, and so insistence becomes necessary, encouraging the human heart to open itself ever more to this divine predilection.
However, just as His acceptance of death is voluntary, His resurrection is equally desired: “I have the power to lay it [life] down, and power to take it up again.” And so it happened on the radiant dawn of Easter Sunday. In the Resurrection of Jesus our own resurrection is announced, if we are determined to lay down our lives for our brethren, as St. Paul says: “if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him” (Rom 6:8).
Finally, Our Lord categorically declares: “This command I have received from my Father.” The life of the Divine Lamb, sacrificed on the altar of the Cross, was entirely made up of obedience. Because He knew the Father as no one else did, He was able to measure the extent to which sin offended Him; on the other hand, He understood the extraordinary treasure that men had lost through their rebellion. Therefore, His love for the Father and total union of will with Him moved Him to give himself up in order to make reparation for the outraged glory of God and to rescue the children of Adam from the clutches of the devil. Obedience became the measure of His love, and it will also be so for His sheep: “He who has my Commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves Me; and he who loves Me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him” (Jn 14:21).
III – Receptacles of Jesus’ Infinite Charity
The Gospel of this Fourth Sunday of Easter presents to us, in the manner of a fabulous fireworks display, the boundless goodness of Our Lord Jesus Christ, which surpasses all imaginative capacity. In the Good Shepherd we see the supreme self-sacrifice and zeal for the sheep taken to the point of death, and death on a Cross.
However, one misgiving might somewhat cloud this magnificent horizon, so salutary for our souls: the idea that Our Lord died for an immense multitude, of which we constitute only a tiny part. Nothing could be further from the truth. The parable of the lost sheep (cf. Lk 15:4-6) refutes this objection; it clearly shows Jesus’ love for each one of us individually. In it the good shepherd leaves his flock in the sheepfold and sets out in search of the lost sheep. When he finds it, he carries it on his shoulders to the sheepfold and then calls his friends to celebrate its safe return.
In fact, while it is true that Our Lord died for all men, it would be even more true to say that He gave His life specifically for each one. This is how Dr. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, spiritual master of the Author of these lines, expresses it in a prayer composed at the conclusion of a spiritual retreat: “O Good Lord Jesus! From the height of the Cross Thou dost look down upon me with Thy merciful gaze, seeming to desire that I also should lift up mine to consider Thee! Yes, to consider Thee in Thine infinite perfection and in the unfathomable abyss of the sufferings which Thou hast endured… for me. For I know, Lord, that Thou wouldst suffer all these sorrows for me alone, or for any other man, if he were the only one who depended on these sufferings to be saved.” And St. Paul, with his usual conviction, states this in a peremptory manner: “the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20).
This intimate conviction of having been the direct and personal object of Jesus’ redeeming love must mark our hearts so deeply that it transforms us completely. In this way we will be capable of every sacrifice and every renunciation in order to respond to the torrents of His infinite love!
The best way to understand to what extent this affection is directed to each individual soul is to contemplate the mystery of the Eucharist. After the consecration of the species of bread and wine, the substance of these foods is no longer present, but rather the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Our Lord Jesus. And in the divine banquet He gives himself entirely, in a conflagration of love, establishing an exclusive relationship with the communicant. It is by receiving the Bread of Angels that the Good Shepherd’s care for His sheep becomes evident in our lives.
Let us go to the Sacred Table with lively faith and a well-disposed soul, in order to adore our Redeemer for the immeasurable love with which He fills us. In this way we shall become worthy sheep of the flock of the one true Shepherd of our souls, aware that we are loved by Him, each one of us, with boundless predilection. ◊