The audience in today’s Gospel is the same as that which witnessed the healing of the man born blind in the Gospel we heard a few weeks ago on the Fourth Sunday of Lent. There it was the Pharisees who ended up as the “blind” ones because of their arrogant disbelief in the sign of Jesus’ healing. They are the leaders who are shepherds blind to the needs of their people, failing in their duty of pastoral care, and ancestors of the unhappy line of some religious that stretches down to our own day.
The pastoral situation in the Johannine community at the end of the first century was that some of the members had become disenchanted with Jesus as the Messiah and had gone out from the community taking others with them.
Proclaimed in our assemblies today, this Gospel has a sharp edge for today’s pseudo-saviors, those who can see no possibility of salvation unless it corresponds perfectly to their distorted vision of the Gospel. These are leaders who are traitors – or in the language of this gospel, “thieves” and “bandits” – to their people’s trust, their rightful inheritance as human persons with the dignity given them by their creator.
There are many voices of “thieves and bandits” shouting at us today. Some of the harshest voices are those of the ultraconservative critics in the sheepfold itself who are busily robbing the flock of their Vatican II inheritance and doing subtle violence to anyone who differs from their self-righteous positions.
Jesus shifts from the image of the “thieves and bandits” in the second section of our Gospel today when he makes another of his solemn “I AM” proclamations: “I am the gate for the sheep…whoever enters through me will be saved.” This is another way of saying that he is the Messiah, the savior: through him the flock has access to life. “I came that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” The identity of Jesus and his little flock are intimately related.
There are many leaders who know and love their flocks despite great a personal suffering. There is a story told of the late Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago who was a shepherd who, having weathered the storm of false accusations of sexually abusing a young man, was soon to learn that he had terminal cancer.
Because Jesus was for him the gate through which he knew he would soon pass into the green pastures of eternal life, Bernardin also wanted to be a “gate” for a more inclusive flock of other cancer sufferers. As he explained to Henri Nouwen:
As I go to the hospital for treatment, I do not want to go through the
side door directly to the doctor’s office. No, I want to visit the other
patients who have cancer and are afraid to die, and I want to be with
them as a brother and friend who can offer some consolation and
comfort. I have a whole new ministry since I became ill, and I am deeply
grateful for that.
Who is the shepherd? The obvious answer is Jesus. In the next verse after today’s gospel we will hear Jesus say, “I am the good shepherd?” But is that the only answer? Could there be other shepherds? Who might they be, besides some of the obvious ones I have referred to? What about Psalm 23 we prayed earlier? It said that the Lord, God, is our shepherd? He revives, he leads, he protects, he feeds, he waters, he pastures. Could we do those things? Could we be the shepherd? Who are the people who have shepherded, guided, nurtured, and protected your life? When have you shepherded the life of another?
Can we not name the frontline health care workers and their assistants as the “Good Shepherds” in this coronavirus pandemic? The prophet Ezekiel speaks of them when he describes the True Shepherd (Ez. 34:16.) “I will seek out the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak…”. Maybe the shepherd in our gospel today is anyone or anything that nourishes, fosters, empowers, and guards life. It could be God, Jesus, you, or me. Ultimately, though, it seems to be God’s way of being in the world, in the life of Jesus, and in your life and my life.