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The metaphor of the Good Shepherd may have meant more to our Lord’s audience than it does to modern Americans. To most of us, sheep and shepherds are somewhat remote; perhaps even if we have spent some time where other farm animals are raised.
Particularly in our Lord’s time, the shepherd had to be a man quite dedicated to the husbandry of his sheep—very likely, he could not hire anyone to do the things that sometimes had to be done for his sheep, and had to depend upon himself and his family to ensure the animals’ proper care. The fact that the sheep lived by grazing made the shepherd very much a wanderer, who moved from place to place with his flock to be sure that they did not overgraze the land. As a nomad, he spent more time in tents or sleeping under the stars than he did in a permanent home. His occupation became particularly dangerous when he had to deal the predators which naturally wanted to snatch his sheep to eat them. On some occasions, in his zeal for his sheep, a shepherd might find himself out matched, and literally lose his life protecting them.
The Good Shepherd, then, must be a very good man indeed, dedicated to the well-being of His flock. Although we may not know much about raising sheep, we know in retrospect, that our Lord was speaking quite literally when He spoke about “laying down His life for His sheep.” As we just witnessed liturgically during Holy Week, our Lord gave Himself up in sacrifice on the Cross, pouring out His blood, “the blood of the new covenant, shed for many unto the forgiveness of sins.” We can take our Lord’s words today to mean that His death on the Cross was the laying down of His life to protect us from that predator we know as the devil.
Earlier in his first epistle, of which we read a little bit today, Saint Peter tells us that “We are redeemed with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb unspotted and undefiled.” The Scriptures, then, tell us that our Lord is both lamb and shepherd—a theologically significant fact, for when we speak of the Sacrifice of the Cross, or Its renewal in Holy Mass, we often refer to our Lord as “both priest and victim.” The shepherd is, after all, a sort of priest—an intercessor for his flock with the powerful forces of nature around it—at least figuratively like Christ who is our intercessor before God the Father. But our Lord is also the lamb, the voluntary victim, as predicted by the prophet Isaias:
The “one Fold and one Shepherd,” of which our Lord speaks is the Fold which finds itself united to Its Priest and Victim in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. By virtue of His Sacrifice, mankind has been redeemed from the power of sin, and redeemed from its captivity to the devil. It is by virtue of the Mass, and by virtue of the other Sacraments, which in turn derive their efficiency from the same Holy Sacrifice, that we as individual men and women become (and remain) the adopted sons and daughters of God.
The “one Fold and one Shepherd” is that Fold which is faithful to the teachings of our Lord, both moral and doctrinal. The three years of our Lord’s public life were spent teaching—both by word and by example. By the end of His earthly life He had taught His Apostles all that was necessary for them to believe about the Father, and about His own relationship with the Father and the Holy Ghost. And He would send that same Holy Ghost at Pentecost as an interior reminder of all the things He had said to them. He taught them, also, the Commandments—not so much in fear, as they had been handed down to Moses in the desert, but as a way of abiding in the love of Father and Son: “If you keep My commandments you will abide in My love.” He directed the Apostles to bring these things to all the nations, baptizing us, and teaching us to observe all that He had commanded them. Very much like the shepherd, our Lord required the help of His spiritual sons, the Apostles, to whom He passed on the care of His sheep.
None of this is optional, by the way: “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved; he who does not believe shall be condemned.”
About ten weeks from now we will hear a similar Gospel, in which our Lord bids us to “beware of false prophets, who come to us in sheep’s clothing, but who, in reality, are ravenous wolves,” and tells us that “by their fruits you will know them”—both the false prophets and the true; both the good and the bad. It is important to note that the fruits of which our Lord spoke are not the fruits of material prosperity or worldly acclaim. Rather, the fruits are the things which we mentioned today: Holy Mass and the Sacraments by which God desires to be worshipped; the sound doctrines taught by our Lord so that we might know God as He is in truth; and the Commandments which we must keep in order that we my love Him, and that He may love us in return.
These fruits constitute our hope, our faith, and our charity. The Mass and Sacraments are our hope; the means by which we can be sure of eternal salvation if we but cooperate with the graces they provide. The doctrines of our Lord are, of course, our faith; the things which we must believe because they have been revealed by God, and without them we would not know the true God, but only some false “god” in His place. The Commandments of our Lord, are our charity, for only by keeping them do we gain the mutual love of God, and of our neighbor for the love of God. These things form a sort of three legged stool—a stool which is worse than useless if it should lose a leg—we must have all three. Beware of the false prophets and teachers who come without these fruits, or who come bearing false imitations of them.
“Know that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, as gold or silver.... But with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb unspotted and undefiled.” Know that we are the sheep of the Good Shepherd, who, together with the other sheep that He will bring, will all hear the voice of His truth, and we shall be one Fold and one Shepherd, united in our faith, and our hope, and our charity.