Through the prophets, God promised to raise up new shepherds (Jer 3: 15; 23:4) a promise that eventually took a messianic significance (Ezk 34: 23; 37: 22, 24). Not only would God’s shepherd be from the Davidic lineage, but he would also suffer on behalf of the sheep (Zech 13: 7 cf 12: 10). Jesus Christ says, “I am the Good Shepherd, the good shepherd is one who lays down his life for his sheep” (Jn 10: 11).

A shepherd is one who pastures or tends a flock of sheep and/or goats. The occupation first appears in Gen 4: 2 when Abel, “a keeper of sheep” comes into conflict with Cain, “a tiller of the ground.” There has always been a competition between shepherds and farmers. These two life styles actually exist symbiotically. In addition to field stones or brush sheepfolds, shepherds used simple but functionally sound equipment. Protection from the elements was provided by a heavy cloak (cf Jer 43: 12). A staff was used to control the movement of the flock, and a rod was used to ward off  enemies (Ps 23: 14). Also important were a bag for food and a sling (1 Sam 14: lk40). Shepherds played reed flutes to calm the flocks and while away the hours (cf Jud 5: 16). Reference should be made to the use of dogs to help manage the movement of the sheep (Job 30: 1). This writer is completely helpless in providing answer to where the Nigerian Fulani herdsmen  get their sophisticated weapons.

The Jews had a lovely legend to explain why God chose Moses to be the leader of His people. When Moses was feeding the sheep of his father-in-law, a young kid ran away. Moses followed it until it reached a ravine where it found water to drink. When Moses got up to it, he said: “I did not know that you ran away because you were thirsty. Now you must be weary.” He then took the kid up on  his shoulders and carried it back home. God said, “Because you have shown such pity in leading back that kid, you shall lead my flock.”

David was a shepherd who ruled his people with an “upright heart” and a “skilful hand” (Ps 78: 70-72). Cyrus was referred to as God’s shepherd (Isa 44: 28).

In the Old Testament, the image of a “shepherd” is often used for kings. Moreover, God is frequently compared to a shepherd who leads, defends and feeds his people (Ps 80: 2, 23). Israel’s leaders were rather a disappointing lot. The prophets criticized the kings very harshly. In steading or nourishing their sheep, they exploited, dispersed and even killed them. The Lord who is always on the side of the oppressed could not neglect his people who were misused and abused by such unworthy “shepherds.” Through the prophets, he promised that he himself would  take  care  of  the sheep and that he would send a  true shepherd who would  govern  with  justice  and  would establish  peace (Ezk 34:  Jer 23: 1-6).

The gospels  take up this image of the shepherd and use it to explain and manifest the various aspects of the person of Jesus. Saints Matthew and Luke describe the shepherd as the one who seeks out the lost sheep. Jesus claimed that his mission was “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 10: 6; 15: 24). The parable of the lost sheep was told to exemplify God’s love (Matt l18: 12-14); Lk 15: 3-7) while the shepherd’s separation of sheep and goats was compared to judgement (Matt 25: 32-33). When we think of Jesus “the Good Shepherd,” we always link this image to his meek and sympathetic behaviour towards those who went wrong in life. This is certainly the proper way of looking at Jesus. However, the “Good Shepherd” of today’s gospel is completely different. He is very dramatic. He conveys a totally different teaching. For Evangelist John, the shepherd is not one who caresses tenderly the wounded sheep, but the fierce protector, the fighter who, at the risk of his life, stands up to anybody who threatens his flock. The picture called to our mind here is not that of the pastor who “.......... by tranquil streams he leads me to restore my spirit” (Ps 23: 2), but of young David fighting off the lion and the bear that attack his sheep. He pursued them, killed them, and tore the prey from their mouths (1 Sam 17: 34-35). It is this picture of a strong, protective and daring man who fights off bandits and wild animals that is used today in the gospel to present Jesus.

Jesus Christ refers to Himself as the “Good Shepherd” who “lays down his life for his sheep.” He says: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy, but I have come that they may have life, life in all its fullness” (Jn 10: 10). Furthermore, Jesus represents himself as the bread of life which offers the true satisfaction for the hunger of heart (Jn 6: 58), the true gate of the  sheepfold through whom the hungry sheep can go in and out to find green pasture (Jn 10: 9). Jesus says: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life” (Jn 14:6).

Jesus is called “the great shepherd of the sheep” (Heb 13: 20), “the shepherd and Guardian of your souls” (1 Pet 2: 25) and “the chief shepherd” (1 Pet 5: 4). Are we willing to lay down our lives for others?

Second Vatican Council - ‘The Church Today’ states: “By suffering for us, He not only provided us with an example for our imitation. He blazed a trail and if we follow it, life and death are made holy and take on a new meaning.” Pope St Gregory 1 says, “The Good Shepherd laid down His life for His sheep, that he might convert His Body and Blood in our sacrament and satisfy the sheep whom he had redeemed with the nourishment of His own Flesh.”

Just as the shepherd is concerned about the total welfare of his flock, so too, God is concerned for our physical, mental, emotional, moral and spiritual needs. If we want to live a full life and say with the Psalmist, “The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want” (Ps 23:1) we must earn to allow God to manage our lives. When we meet certain people, you continue to marvel at their prodigious energy, their tireless labour, their prolife output of work. They move with such poise, always relaxed, never dissipating their strength.

In the dark tunnel of corruption and in the midst of the jungle of Nigerian politics where primitive greed and ethnicity are often at centre stage, and where justice, civility and the rule of law are discountenanced, Jesus says that the sheep that belong to him listen to his voice. “Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying ‘This is the way, walk in it’” declared Prophet Isaiah (30: 21).  His voice is constantly reaching out to us - in missions, retreats, sicknesses, crosses etc. Every Christian is a missionary. The very fact of living the Christian life in its entirety, in the midst of our fellowmen, is of itself a powerful example to outsiders. After good example, prayer will be his most potent weapon. The devout Christian must pray for the conversion of his fellowmen who are still wandering aimlessly in the barren desert of this life far from God. Let them see the light of the true faith.

After the day’s work, let us bring to the Good Shepherd our joys and problems of the day. Confide in Him. Sometimes, when we ramble off from the flock to nibble at little bits of forbidden pasture, let us pray in the words of the Bible, saying “I am wandering like a lost sheep, come and look for your servant” (Ps 119: 17). He will surely hear our voice and answer us!

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