Photo by Biegun Wschodni on Unsplash

Fourth Sunday of Easter

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

Some years ago, when I was teaching in New Orleans, some of my 8th grade pre-Algebra students gave me an unusual Easter present of a little mallard duckling whom I named Joe after the mastermind whose idea it was. When I was growing up, we had dogs, and chickens, and beetles in shoe boxes and bottles under the bed, but not ducks. I remember reading that ducklings are very impressionable. Joe the duckling followed me everywhere. He would follow me all around campus after school. If anyone called out to him, he would stop, looking all confused. I would call his name and he would regain his bearings and come running. But I feared that in the absence of others like him, this duckling would miss essential duck life lessons, that he would pick up more human sense than duck sense. Fortunately for us both, duck sense kicked in. But I enjoyed how my voice imprinted on this duck, and he followed me.

Sheep, however, I know little about. In college seminary, we tended sheep, cows, and pigs. I knew the sheep were close because you can smell them from miles away. I cringe every time I hear about the shepherd lifting the lost sheep on his shoulders. But I guess you might not mind the smell if you lived in it and breathed it in day in and day out. Shepherds and sheep were common in Jesus’ time and the image was familiar to his listeners. Yet it is the message beyond the image that Jesus is trying to get across.

When Jesus spoke of the shepherd’s care for the welfare of the sheep, he was speaking of God’s care for our welfare. I find it difficult picturing a shepherd caring for sheep in the manner Jesus describes, worrying whose voice the sheep recognize. Yet that is exactly what makes this image so striking. For us non-shepherds, it seems strange that a shepherd should care as much for his sheep. And it is wonderfully strange that God cares as much and more for us, the sheep of his flock.

In recent years, we have been made painfully aware of how a number of priests, those who have been sent to shepherd God’s people, whom we believe are called to live a radical response of Christian faith, have not truly looked after those entrusted to their care. Instead, they have put their own selfish concerns ahead of their flock, whether as perpetrators of the abuse of minors, or as administrators who neglected to stop such abuse. It is a sad and terrible reality that horrifies us because we have been taught to trust our pastors instinctively. Now we are told not to be as trusting anymore. Instead, we are to be suspicious of the people who should represent Jesus the Good Shepherd. It is frightening to think we can no longer be carefree in our own church, or that we should think twice about entrusting our young people to the care of our priests. Over the years, we have seen many of our authority figures fall in disgrace, teachers, coaches, band directors, scout leaders, and now priests. There can be no excuse for their behavior which is both criminal and sinful. And although they are few in number who have broken trust among the many who strive to be genuine examples of God’s care, they are out there, wolves in sheep’s clothing. We cannot ever be too careful.

Still, there are many more shepherds who continue to earn our trust each day, who face the challenge of leadership and service with dedication and heroic concern for God’s people. They deserve our support and our prayers. The scandal of a few have made the life’s work and mission of the many so much more difficult and suspect. And while we experience a shortage of priestly and religious vocations, the needs of the people of God have not decreased. And in spite of all their efforts, these servants of the church are still only hired hands, and there is still only one true shepherd, Jesus Christ. It is his voice alone we should listen for, his lead we should follow. There will be other minor shepherds sent to accomplish portions of the Good Shepherd’s mission. But they are nothing more than imperfect substitutes, who like the rest of us must respond to Jesus’ invitation to trust God and to authentically practice the faith. If any of these shepherds get in the way of our following the lead of Jesus the Good Shepherd, we should not be afraid of turning from them. Yet we will only know to do just that if we are careful not to follow anyone blindly. Rather, we should learn to recognize the Good Shepherd’s voice. Then we should learn to trust our hearts.

As we look to Jesus Christ who is our shepherd, we must remember to pray for those who share Jesus’ duties as shepherd, who lead God’s people in God’s name. None of them will ever be as perfect as Jesus, none as gentle or loving and kind. Sometimes they are short-tempered or insensitive or obnoxious. Sometimes they lack humility, or courage, or faith. Like many among us, they have been given the care of others. They are popes, bishops, pastors, and pastoral ministers. They are parents, teachers, coaches, adult leaders, and older sisters and brothers. Somehow, each of us becomes a shepherd to another when we take seriously the responsibility of caring for each other, of nourishing the life we have been given, of protecting and keeping one another from harm. We ought not to be content knowing that Jesus is our shepherd. Instead, we should take up with courage the task of shepherding one another, sharing the responsibility of caring for each other, protecting the weak, the poor, the elderly and the young.

I only kept duckling Joe from Easter till the end of the school year. I gave him to another student from the same class. Last I heard, he was given a new name. And after I moved away, I lost track of who had custody. In the end, all of us who shepherd others are only given the task temporarily. It is a sobering reminder to all of us that popes, bishops, priests, and pastoral ministers will come and go. Even parents, teachers, coaches, adult leaders, and older sisters and brothers will have to move on sometime. But Jesus the Good Shepherd watches over the sheep of God’s flock always. It is his voice we should learn to recognize. It is his lead we should follow. And we pray that he sends holy women and men to assist in the task of shepherding God’s flock, that they be genuine witnesses of faith and fidelity, that they grasp the weight of their responsibility to care for the sheep, and that they put the needs of others way above their own.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

Rolo B Castillo © 2023