In the beginning

Column: Shepherd metaphor rooted in pastoral life

by Father Mike Stubbs

Pet owners will usually keep track of their cats and dogs by means of tags around the neck. Ordinarily, city ordinance will require this identification.

For larger livestock, such as beef cattle, the owners will often brand the hide or maybe staple a tag to the ear.

Those are modern methods of keeping track of animals. But how was it done centuries ago, at the time of Jesus?

This was an important issue, especially for shepherds. They would often join forces in tending their flocks at night. One shepherd would keep watch, while the other shepherds slept. They would take turns guarding the sheep. That describes the situation of the shepherds outside Bethlehem who hear the angels announce the birth of Jesus: “In that same region there were shepherds pasturing their flock and taking turns watching over it by night” (Lk 2:8).

When it was time for the shepherds to separate out their flocks, perhaps to shear them for wool or to take them to market, each shepherd would call out his distinctive call. The sheep would recognize their own shepherd’s call and follow him.

That practice provides the background for this Sunday’s Gospel reading, Jn 10:11-18: “I am the good shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I will lay down my life for the sheep.”

The sheep know the good shepherd because they recognize his call. They know the sound of his voice. They do not recognize him by sight, because they cannot see him. But that is not a barrier: “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”

During his life on earth, Jesus called individuals to follow him. They responded and became his disciples. Through the time they spent with Jesus, they grew to know and love him. That is why the good shepherd says, “I know mine and mine know me.”

In following Jesus, the disciples resist the suggestions of Jesus’ enemies to turn away from him. The Gospel reading compares those enemies to a wolf, who wishes to catch and scatter the sheep.

After Jesus’ lifetime, during the period of the early church when the Gospel of John was being written, other disciples were sometimes attracted to false shepherds, who operated with not the best of motives and who sought to lead the people away from the teachings of Christ. The Gospel compares those false shepherds to the hired man, who does not protect the sheep.

The Gospel reading reflects the idea that this happened in some cases. The Gospel also exhibits hope that those disciples who have strayed will return: “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.”

The one shepherd is, of course, the good shepherd, who guides, feeds and protects his flock. Our Gospel reading describes the work of that good shepherd, beginning during the lifetime of the earthly Jesus and continuing through the early church up to our own time. He never stops watching over us, because he is the good shepherd.

About the author

Fr. Mike Stubbs

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