The Good Shepherd, Mausoleum of Galla Placidia c.AD425, Ravenna, Italy.
Jesus said: “I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. John 10:11.
Words and phrases highlighted in red are links to supporting materials.
To start with, looking at the image above, shepherds in Jesus’s time, or in Galla Placidia’s time or, for that matter, today, are not dressed in gold fabric outfits clutching golden crosses or shepherd’s crooks or anything like it! Zeffirelli’s movie of Jesus of Nazareth (1977) has a much more likely depiction of shepherds appearing at Jesus’ birth. Another movie version has the innkeeper’s wife calling them “thieves and robbers the lot of you”! again a possible popular image of shepherds 2000 years ago. They were probably among the poorest of the poor in ancient societies, even though their job was very important. Livestock ownership was an indication of wealth back then, so hiring others to take care of sheep was a serious business. Also, sheep are herbivores and are ill-equipped to take care of themselves in the presence of a predator, as any shepherd will tell you. They need help, hence their shepherd, a herder of sheep; and remember that the Latin word for shepherd is pastor… It was also my impression that sheep were basically stupid, but apparently that is wrong. As Jesus was clearly referring to us as his sheep, that was good news! Back in the day, about the time that Christianity became legal in 313 under the Emperor Constantine, the most popular and earliest image of Christ was as the Good Shepherd. Nowhere to be seen was Christ on the cross, a symbol of criminal malfeasance in the extreme. That image would only become common some centuries later, well after crucifixion had been abolished in the Roman Empire, and hence became, as it were, respectable. We would have had the same response today if the Lord had been executed in the electric chair….. It would never have been seen in any picture or statue. A shepherd identity would be much more acceptable.
The Good Shepherd, Catacomb of St. Callixtus early 3th century, Rome, Italy.
Good Shepherd Oil Lamp, early 3rd century, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Germany.
So it seems Jesus likened us to a flock of sheep, apparently intelligent, responsible, caring, and so on. But vulnerable and in many ways, defenseless. In other words, we are open to the wiles of the Evil One, the wolf, the fox, the bringer of injury and death. We can succumb to all sorts of destructive nonsense, our predators being anything from illegal drugs and sexual obsession to criminal behavior and infliction of psychological or physical injury. We need the Lord to protect us from all that or even to lead us out of it, when we have come to our senses. Today’s second reading refers to us as children of God, perhaps a better description of all of us when we act like children no matter our age. The first reading paints a picture of who we should be, or who we really are, people who care of ourselves and others. And our Good Shepherd Sunday gospel has Jesus talking of “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.” That is thought to be a reference to the Gentiles in Jesus’ day, that they too are welcome into his “flock”, even though they were considered to be utterly beyond the Jewish world. Perhaps today we could add those who are beyond the Judeo-Christian fold, remembering Rahner’s “Anonymous Christian” thesis described a few weeks ago (4th Sunday of Lent, 14 March 2021). It is up to all of us to show a good example of Christian welcome, respect, warmth and love to those others, as Jesus did to those he encountered who were not Jewish. It has been known in other sheep-like dimensions…. So today is a rallying call to behavior which is welcoming and attractive to others outside the fold, so that when they see us, they see the Shepherd who inspires us, ever open and loving. Surely in this day and age, that would be a most encouraging sign.
Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.
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