As any competent public speaker would know, one has to know something about the audience before a “message” can be adequately delivered. The reason being, of course, that if a “message” is to be considered significant and personally meaningful it has to “speak” in the imagery that is known to the listener.
When Jesus preached his message, his major audience was, primariy, the pastor and the farmer. So the imagery utilized was that of plants, trees, seeds, and animals of one kind or another.
Interestingly enough, one of the most frequent images in the Bible is the sheep and the shepherd. Abraham, Moses, David were all shepherds. It seems that some of the significant leaders of Israel were shepherds because of the relationship that the image tells us existed between sheep and shepherds.
We are aware that Jesus is often referred to as the ideal shepherd. Remember the Gospel account (Luke 15:2-7) of the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine in order to search for the one who was lost? The point being that the one who repents is worthy of being saved.
The church carries on the potential impact of the image of that sheep-servant in the Mass. Just before the celebrant distributes communion to the faithful, he raises a consecrated host and says to the congregation, “Behold the lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world….”
In fact, it should be no surprise that the priest who is in charge of a parish, being responsible for the members, should be called a pastor.
In the Gospel for the fourth Sunday of Easter (John 10:11-18), Jesus calls himself the good shepherd. Why? It is likely that there are two good reasons for this. First, Jesus is willing to die for his sheep. Second, Jesus knows his sheep intimately.
Regarding the first point. In the text itself, the response of the hireling to danger is clearly expressed. He works for pay, and the sheep are not his. So, he can run away since he has no obligation to stay. Regarding the second reason, again the text says that the sheep recognize the voice of the shepherd. Anyone who owns a pet is aware of this. A bond is formed.
And the bond is stregthened when the sheep become aware that the shepherd will do anything to protect the sheep, even to die. What is particularly important is that the sheep become more aware of the love, care, and concern that the shepherd expresses to the sheep–because they are his. There is a real intimacy that has developed in the bilateral relationship between sheep and shepherd in this context.
What are some of the probable lessons that we can learn from this Gospel reading? Above all, the major lesson that we can learn is that by virtue of our Baptism we are responsible to/for others. In that sense, the baptized person is destined to be a “good shepherd.”
This means that we have to be willing to “die” for others. In this context, to “die” means to exert extreme effort to be of service to others. For example, going beyond the normal to see that justice is done, compassion is expressed, forgivenes is experienced, and understanding exists. There is always that challenge to go “beyond.” We may be bothered by questions like, “Do I want to get involved?” “What is the basis for my wanting to help others?” These questions demand an answer if our behavior is to have any meaning.
It is well to remember that Baptism reminds us that we are all created in the image and likeness of God, so that there is a predisposed equality among us. And it is the willingness to “die” (exert extreme effort) for helping others, and the love and concern that we show to them that make this experience a good way of building relationships. In time, reciprocity of behavior unfolds.