On this fourth Sunday of Easter traditionally known as the Good Shepherd Sunday, John the evangelist depicts the image of the relationship of the shepherd with his sheep. What does Jesus say here?
1. “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”
The shepherd communicates through his voice. When he speaks, the sheep hear him. Not just that the sheep hear, but the voice of the shepherd communicates safety. So, the sheep trust and follow the shepherd. They are confident that the shepherd knows their needs. He identifies with their weaknesses. He knows when they are hungry or thirsty. He knows when they are in pain. He knows when they are afraid. He knows when they are threatened by wolves. The shepherd puts his life on the line for them as Christ says, “I will lay down my life for my sheep.” The sheep find comfort in their shepherd.
2. “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish. No one can take them out of my hand.”
The second step goes deeper than the first. The shepherd makes a pledge of commitment beyond providing physical satisfaction. When Christ says, “My sheep hear my voice,” it is important to identify the medium through which the shepherd speaks. The shepherd brings eternal life through his word. The sacred scripture contains God’s word spoken to believers for eternal life. Christ is the shepherd and his flock hears his word. Christ said earlier, “The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life” (Jn. 6:63). What a wonderful gift, eternal life for the sheep. The image of the shepherd is one of kindness and compassion, but significantly of courage and commitment. The shepherd commits to protecting his sheep and would not let anyone take them out of his hand.
3. “My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can take them out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.”
This last point raises even a deeper expectation than the second. The relationship between the shepherd and the sheep anchors on the depth of the relationship between Christ and the Father, a relationship which is unimaginably strong, “The Father and I are one.” By gifting his sheep with eternal life, Jesus hands them over to the Father. The Father is omnipotent and commands supreme authority. The Father also loves the Son dearly and would do anything to protect the Son. Taking care of the sheep is a commission given to the Shepherd by the Father, so returning them to the Father will guarantee eternal life for the sheep. The book of Revelation gives an eschatological picture, “For the Lamb who is in the center of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to springs of life-giving water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (7:17).
Pope John Paul 11 wrote in his encyclical Pastores Dabo Vobis, “Jesus is the promised good shepherd (cf. Ez. 34), who knows each one of his sheep, who offers his life for them and who wishes to gather them together as one flock with one shepherd (cf. Jn. 10:11-16). He is the shepherd who has come "not to be served but to serve" (Mt. 20:28), who in the paschal action of the washing of the feet (cf. Jn. 13:1-20) leaves to his disciples a model of service to one another and who freely offers himself as the "innocent lamb" sacrificed for our redemption (cf. Jn. 1:36; Rv. 5:6, 12).”
Think about the experience of Paul and Barnabas as they struggle to spread the good news in Antioch in the first reading. Imagine the counterattacks from the Jewish leaders of the time. What happens? The authorities make every effort to snatch the converts and believers from their shepherd. But they fail to succeed because as Christ says in the gospel, “No one can take them out of my hand.” We read in Acts of the Apostles, “All who were destined for eternal life came to believe, and the word of the Lord continued to spread through the whole region.” The sheep are destined for eternal life. Secular forces cannot take that away.
Today is Mother’s Day in America and the church celebrates the good shepherd Sunday. What a good coincidence. We wish to remind mothers of the unconditional love of the shepherd for them. The experience of being a mother can sometimes be challenging. For instance, a mother came to me recently to lament the attitude of her daughter who decided to turn her back on her. This grieving mom said she had employed every strategy to demonstrate her love for this daughter, to no avail. Some mothers have pains in their hearts for several reasons. Maybe some members of their family are under the heavy influence of addiction. Maybe they have sick children. Maybe the kids have rejected the faith. Some mothers live in fear and are anxious. For some, the celebration of motherhood could bring back trauma because of the history of losses they experienced. We unite the pains of such mothers to the good shepherd’s pains and sacrifices. May the Heart of Jesus united with the Heart of Mary bring you healing and comfort.
My experience is that rarely do mothers put themselves first. Instead, mothers place children’s or husband’s or their loved ones’ welfare first. The good shepherd speaks directly to the concerns of mothers today to remind you that he knows you. Are you worried about children? The shepherd knows you. Are you afraid? Are you concerned about health issues in your family? Are addiction issues messing your family up? The shepherd tells you today to trust and bring it to him.
Come to think about the controversy over the Supreme Court’s plan to overrule Roe v Wade which is raging strongly now. We all know that we would not have been here today had you, our mothers, not taken risks to give birth to us. Like every mom, my mother had pains of pregnancy when she carried me in the womb. My mother told me story of how sick I was as a baby and how she slept in hospital for days with me. She said I was moved from one hospital to another for many times. Each of those days, my mom was with me. She sacrificed her pleasures. She gave up going to parties for me. She slept in the hospital because I was there. She left the comfort of her bed and her home to care for me. Many mothers here have untold stories of pains and torture in the labor room giving birth to us. At the time many of us were born, technology had not come up with easy options of delivering babies through C-session. Our mothers pushed and pushed, cried and cried, before we came out of the womb. You mothers desired to give life to us at all costs. Our mothers chose life because they listened to the voice of the good shepherd. You mothers made sacrifices after the mind of the good shepherd. You need to hear that and be joyful for being harbingers of life.
Today, the wolves want to snatch away the beauty of life and the sanctity of childbearing. These are jealous and frivolous authorities, just as in the time of the apostles. These authorities want to take away the precious gift of life from the sheep that you mothers cherish, value, and protect. These are lives that made you who you are. You became vulnerable because these lives in your wombs are vulnerable. You are precious because you create lives. What are you doing today, just watching helplessly? I think you should all rise and respond like Peter in Acts of the Apostles, “We must obey God rather than human beings!” (Acts 5:29)
Dear mothers, we want you to know once again today, that we love you so much. We cherish your sacrifices. We value your pains. Please, continue to remind us of what the good shepherd wants; we may have life and have it in full. Keep encouraging your children to listen to the voice of the good shepherd. He desires that the sheep listen to his voice. You, mothers, are shepherds in a unique way. You laid down your lives to have us. You went through risks and pains. May the good shepherd reward you and bless you with joy, mercy, and love. May your eternal reward be everlasting life at the end. Amen.
Happy Mother’s Day!
Readings: 1st- Acts 13:14, 43-52; 2nd- Rev. 7:9, 14-17; Gospel- Jn. 10:27-30