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Feeding His Flock
Feeding His Flock

Feeding His Flock

Fourth Sunday of Easter. Fr Dominic Ryan preaches on the image of the Good Shepherd.

Today’s gospel focuses on sheep and shepherds. The idea is that Christ is in some way like a shepherd – a good shepherd – one who looks after his sheep. So if we understand what that involves, then we’ll have a better understanding of what Christ was about. Here things get tricky though. Being a shepherd in Jesus’s day was different from what it is today. Today’s shepherds might move their sheep from pasture to pasture. They have dogs to help them and for the most part, in this country at least, the sheep can be left in a field to do as they please. Things were different in Israel in Jesus’s time. Dogs weren’t used to herd sheep and the dangers sheep faced were very real indeed.

What tended to happen was that all the flocks of a village were kept in a common pen at night with one man, a gatekeeper, to guard them. At daybreak each shepherd would then lead their flock out to pasture and stay with the sheep throughout the day to protect them from wolves, thieves, and other dangers. Indeed the better the shepherd, the more he would know his sheep, the more he would be alert to the dangers facing them, and the more he would be willing to defend them.

Of course Jesus is the best of all shepherds. He gathers a flock together, a flock which is the Church, making us, his sheep, part of his mystical body. He cares for his flock in every way he can. He seeks out the lost, whatever they may have done, in order to return them to his flock and he never stops trying to bring new people into his flock. Not only is he willing to defend his flock but ultimately he gives up his life for it and he does all this because he wants to lead his flock to what God holds out for it – eternal life.

Inevitably along the way difficulties have to be faced. Fortunately Christ prepared for them. Take the Last Supper: Christ’s thoughts during that final Passover with his disciples were not about himself, but rather about the ones he had come to help, the ones he had come to save – human beings. And that was the disciples in the first instance of course, but beyond that to those who follow – us. And Christ knew that unless there was some way for human beings to share in his sacrifice, then equally there would be no way for human beings to share in its benefits. And thus Christ instituted the Eucharist so that the sacrifice of the cross would be made present and its benefits be shared with those who partook of his sacrifice. And in sharing those benefits, we receive the grace necessary to keep on the path Christ laid out for us. So not only was Christ willing to defend his flock but ultimately he gave up his life for it and therein lies the affirmation of Christ’s role as our shepherd.

And it isn’t difficult to see the benefits of all this. Take the example of St Peter boldly proclaiming the gospel in the first reading. Peter was now willing to stand before the crowd and proclaim the gospel to them. To tell the crowd that Jesus was the Lord and Messiah, yet they had crucified him. To tell them they must repent and be baptised. This was a big turnaround on Peter’s part from Good Friday when he had denied Christ three times – and did so in response to questions from a simple serving girl. Yet Peter was now able to witness to Christ boldly in the face of opposition where previously he had not. Indeed he would continue in this way for the rest of his life finally dying a martyr’s death in Rome.

Still in order to share these benefits we have to become part of Christ’s flock. Christ never stops trying to bring people into his flock, but we can help as well: sheep follow other sheep. If other people see the benefits that being a member of Christ’s flock brings, then they’ll be much more likely to seek out Christ themselves. Only Christ can justify, but we can encourage other people to open themselves to Christ’s saving grace. And if we can do so then we’ll be helping to pass on what we have received, just as Christ would want us to do.

Readings: Acts 2:14,36-41 | 1 Peter 2:20-25 | John 10:1-10

Image: statue of the Good Shepherd from the church of the Sacred Heart, Brussels, photographed by Fr Lawrence Lew OP

 

fr Dominic Ryan is Subprior and Bursar of the Priory of the Holy Spirit in Oxford, and Prefect of the Studium Library. 
dominic.ryan@english.op.org

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