By Sr. Anne, SSJD.
In a Lutheran parish in Pennsylvania where my father was employed there were numerous pictures of Jesus as the Good Shepherd throughout the Sunday School rooms and nursery. In fact, one of the Nursing Homes in that city was called the Good Shepherd Home. It is an image that has stayed with me for most of my life. As one commentator has observed
Some of the earliest images of Jesus found in churches is the picture of Jesus as the gentle shepherd. Usually the painting depicts a young Jesus dressed in a short tunic who has draped a lamb over his shoulders.
On this fourth Sunday of Easter we are at a turning point in which the gospel lesson shifts from the historical recounting of the events following the resurrection to a reflection of the disciples’ experiences with Jesus. They turned to the images he had taught them about himself, one of which is from our gospel lesson today “I am the Good Shepherd”.
The imagery in today’s Gospel reading is based on the pastoral organization of society and is used to describe some aspects of the life of the Christian community. The followers of Jesus are compared to sheep in the care of a faithful shepherd.
Most of us do not have much experience with shepherds or with sheep. When Jesus spoke of shepherds and sheep, he was speaking to people who had everyday experiences with lambs, sheep, goats and kids. In this gospel, Jesus is describing what a good shepherd does and will do and claiming to be a good shepherd. All of his audience knew who the good shepherd was – God. The scriptures are filled with images of God as the shepherd of the chosen people of God. The Old Testament associates God’s shepherding with two defining experiences in Israel’s corporate life; The exodus/wilderness and the exile. The wilderness experience in particular echoes throughout Psalm 23.
Psalm 23 appointed for this Sunday is perhaps one of the best- known references for the good shepherd. The Psalm paints the picture of a loving, caring God/shepherd providing food, comfort and shelter. To be followers was to enter into God’s sheepfold. He came to be the one who cared for and fed them. It was a dangerous job; protecting the sheep from wolves and bandits. As the Good Shepherd Jesus had not only to be willing to, he did lay down his life for the sheep that God had given him. We know his voice and we follow him. He cares for us, keeping us safe. And when we wander away, he comes searching for us. The role of the shepherd has become synonymous with such values as trust, faithfulness, dependability, gentleness. The role of the shepherd also requires tenacity, strength, courage and leadership.
“The Lord is my shepherd.”
Psalm 23 is an extremely personal expression of God’s care. Nowhere in the Bible does one say “the Lord is my shepherd.” This psalm draws from a communal consciousness about God as a shepherd of the nation yet expresses this understanding in very personal terms. Psalm 23 foretells the words of Jesus “I am the Good Shepherd” and Peter who declares that Jesus is the “shepherd and guardian of souls”. The Psalm is more about how a person lives in relationship to God than how one faces death or finds security beyond the grave. This statement acknowledges God as the one who protects and guides. But, a Shepherd is more than someone who guides sheep, but was also a royal metaphor in the ancient Near East. To call God, Shepherd, is to acknowledge God as one who rules over one’s life, to surrender to the will of God. When the simple-though sublime statement is made by a person that “The Lord is my Shepherd” it immediately implies a profound yet practical working relationship between a human being and their creator and a claim of belonging in the family of God.
“I shall not Want”
In the Psalm, the word “want” has a broader meaning. The main concept is that of not lacking – not deficient – in proper care, management or husbandry. A second emphasis is the idea of being utterly contented in the Good Shepherd’s care and not craving or desiring anything more.
Those that have entrusted themselves to Christ’s control have found contentment. Contentment should be the hallmark of the person who has put their affairs in the hands of God.
It is the humble heart walking quietly and contently in the close and intimate companionship of Christ that is at rest, that can relax, simply glad to lie down and let the world go by.
In Step 6 in the ladder of Humility of St. Benedict’s Rule, Esther DeWaal commented:
“God does not want an ambitious and competitive person, but one who is content, even in the lowliest of occupations. Contentment is the key word. Lack of inner contentment means that I am reliant on externals, of whatever sort, for satisfaction. Lack of contentment lets me become trapped in the coils of the competitive society, competing for material goods, social status etc. These steps are steps into freedom, and their purpose is to help me to disentangle myself from all that would prevent inner freedom. The heart of this step is “I am with you always”.
“You make me lie down in green pastures and lead me beside still waters; you revive my soul”
In the Christian life it is of more than passing significance to observe that those who are often the most serene, most confident and able to cope with life’s complexities are those who rise early each day to feed on God’s Word. It is in the quiet, early hours of the morning that they are led beside the quiet, still waters where they imbibe the very life of Christ for the day. It is a practical reality.
One comes away from these hours of meditation, reflection and communion with Christ refreshed in mind and spirit. A thirstis slaked and the heart is quietly satisfied after drinking from the waters of life.
“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I shall fear no evil”
The Good Shepherd is with us in every situation, in every dark trial, in every dismal disappointment, in every distressing dilemma. With God’s people, one only gains higher ground by climbing up through the valleys. It is not until we have walked with God through some very deep troubles that we discover that He can lead us to find our refreshment in Him right there in the midst of our difficulty. It is when we can look back over our life and see how the Shepherd’s hand has guided and sustained us in the darkest hours that renewed faith is engendered. Because the Good Shepherd is with us, we will not fear. To live thus is to have taken some very long treks toward the high country of holy, calm and healthy living with God.
“For you are with me; your rod and you staff, the comfort me.”
The rod speaks of the spoken Word, the expressed intent, the extended activity of God’s mind and will in dealing with people. There is great assurance in our own hearts as we contemplate the power, veracity, and potent authority vested in God’s Word. For the Scriptures are God’s rod.
The staff more than any other item of the shepherd’s personal equipment, identifies the shepherd as a shepherd. It is the instrument used for the care and management of sheep and only sheep. The staff is essentially a symbol of the concern, the compassion that a shepherd has for one’s charges. No other single word can better describe its function on behalf of the flock than that it is for their comfort. The staff of God is symbolic of the Spirit of God.
You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me.”
Our Good Shepherd is going ahead of us in every situation, anticipating what danger we may encounter, and praying for us that in it we might not succumb. This is one sure place of safety.
In His care and concern for us Christ insures that we shall have some gladness with our sadness; some delightful days as well as dark days; some sunshine as well as shadow. To find this tableland is to have found something of my Shepherd’s love for us.
“You have anointed my head with oil and my cup is running over.”
The freedom of fear from the torment of parasites and insects is essential to the contentment of the sheep. A good shepherd will apply various types of insect repellent to the sheep.
In the Christian life there are bound to be many small irritations. There are the annoyances of petty frustrations and ever-recurring disagreeable experiences.
In scripture the Spirit is often symbolized by oil – that which brings healing and comfort and relief from the harsh and abrasive aspects of life. The Spirit applies the healing, soothing effective antidote of her presence to our particular problems It is this daily anointing of God’s Spirit upon our minds which produces in our lives such personality traits as joy, contentment, love, patience, gentleness and peace. This is to come to a place of great contentment in the Shepherd’s care. And it is then the cup of contentment that becomes real in our lives.
“Surely your good and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and
I will dwell in your house, O God, forever.”
It is the Good Shepherd’s presence that guarantees there will be no lack of any sort; that there will be abundant green pastures; that there will be still clean waters; that here will be new paths into fresh fields; that there will be safe summers on the high tablelands; that there will be freedom from fear; that there will be antidotes for flies and disease and parasites; that there will be quietness and contentment…. Forever. Amen