The image of the Good Shepherd is one of the most beautiful and best loved icons of Jesus since the early days of the Church. It speaks of the providence, care, protection and security that the shepherd gives to his flock which vividly describe Jesus’ own relationship with his disciples.
The task of shepherding is hard. Because Palestine is an arid land, the shepherd constantly searches for grass and water to feed his flock. It is also dangerous and risky. In the rough terrain some sheep can easily wander off and fall in the surrounding crags. Moreover, since the desert is home to wild animals, the shepherd is always on the alert and ready to protect his flock from predators. Shepherding is a fulltime job that demands total commitment from the shepherd. For all this, the true shepherd is a picture of dedication, courage, and self-sacrifice.
It is no wonder that God happily appropriates the image of the shepherd to describe his own relationship with his people. The Old Testament abounds with such image. “The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want.” (Ps 23:1) “For he is our God, and we are his people, the flock he shepherds.” (Ps 95:7) “Like a shepherd he feeds his flock; in his arms he gathers the lambs, carrying them in his bosom, leading the ewes with care.” (Is 40:11)
The reality of God as the shepherd of his people reaches its culmination and full manifestation in Jesus, who proclaims himself as the “Good Shepherd [who] lays down his life for the sheep.” (Jn 10:11). This he fulfills on the Cross where gives up his body and pours out his blood for our salvation.
Today’s gospel presents a feature in our relationship with Jesus that is particularly consoling and reassuring. Ours is a relationship with the Good Shepherd so close that no one will ever be able to snatch us from his hands. It is a relationship bound by love and reciprocal knowledge which guarantees us of eternal life. “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish. NO ONE CAN TAKE THEM OUT OF MY HAND.”
St. Paul echoes this same conviction when he writes, “What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword? …Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rm 8:35ff)
This does not mean that when we are with Christ, we will not encounter any problem or difficulty. To follow him is to hear his voice and heed his call, and his call can be challenging. In the end, to follow Christ means to follow him all the way to the cross. But at the same time, he assures us that we are never alone for he holds us in his hands.
This is what we hear in today’s First Reading. As Barnabas and Paul carry out their mission of preaching the gospel to the people of Antioch, they are met with opposition and violent abuse from the Jews. Despite the persecution, the two apostles are kept safe and “filled with joy and the Holy Spirit.”
How much we need this reassuring hand of the Good Shepherd, especially in this time of great uncertainty brought about by occurrences like the ecological disaster, the Ukraine war and even our own national and local elections. No matter what comes out of the elections, Jesus assures us that we are in his hand. All he asks is that we hear and heed his call.
As we go to the polls tomorrow, let us pray that the Lord will guide our people in choosing leaders according to his heart – the heart of the Good Shepherd.*