In this Sunday’s Gospel we encounter one of the most well-known phrases of Scripture: “I am the good shepherd" (Jn 10:11, 14). Jesus repeats this phrase twice to make sure we understand it.
Beginning in John 10:1, the section right before this week’s gospel, Jesus begins to speak in terms of the imagery of shepherds and sheep. "Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers…The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy," (Jn 10:7-8, 10) he says.
With these words, Jesus is presenting an indictment the current shepherds of God’s people, namely the Pharisees. Jesus is accusing them of being thieves who come to steal, kill and destroy. The Pharisees "…held counsel with the Herodians against him [Jesus], how to destroy him" (Mk 3:6). The high priest, the chief priests and the elders "…took counsel together in order to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him" (Mt 26:4).
Jesus brings a word of condemnation upon them by bringing to mind the false shepherds of the Old Testament.
During the time before Babylon came to conquer the Southern Kingdom of Judah God says, “‘Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!’ says the Lord. Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who care for my people: ‘You have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord’” (Jer 23:1-2).
During Jeremiah’s time, the people have chosen to follow their own plans, "and everyone will act according to the stubbornness of his evil heart" (Jer 18:12). God reacts by saying, "Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, burn incense to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, saying, ‘We are delivered!’ – only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house…become a den of robbers in your eyes?" (Jer 7:8-11).
But the people fail to learn from God’s wrath and Jeremiah’s words. During the time of their captivity inBabylon, the shepherds have still not learned their lesson. "Thus says the Lord God: Ho, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the crippled you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them" (Ez 34:2b-4).
And when they return from exile, the prophet Zechariah speaks to them again about the same thing. After the exile, the people asked the shepherds to sacrifice to false gods in order to receive rain and vegetation. But, as God says through Zechariah: "The teraphim utter nonsense, and the diviners see lies; the dreamers tell false dreams, and give empty consolation. Therefore the people wander like sheep; they are afflicted for want of a shepherd. My anger is hot against the shepherds, and I will punish the leaders" (10:2-3a).
The book of the prophet Malachi gives us more insight into the actions of the people and their relatioship with God during this time. First, the priest shepherds are offering polluted food upon the altar and offering blind animals to God as a sacrifice (cf. Mal 1:6-8).
Secondly, they are not teaching the truths that God has revealed. "For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and men should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. But you have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble by your instruction; you have corrupted the covenant of Levi, says the Lord of hosts, and so I make you despised and abased before all the people, inasmuch as you have not kept my ways but have shown partiality in your instruction" (Mal 2:7-9).
Third, the people have wearied the Lord. "Yet you say, ‘How have we wearied him?’ By saying, ‘every one who does evil is good in the sight of the Lord, and he delights in them.’" (Mal 2:17).
Fourth, they are robbing God. "But you say, ‘How are we robbing you?’ In your tithes and offerings. You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me; the whole nation of you" (Mal 3:8-9).
Fifth, they have spoken against the Lord. "Yet you say, ‘How have we spoken against you?’ You have said, ‘It is vain to serve God. What is the good of our keeping his charge or of walking as in mourning before the Lord of hosts? Henceforth we deem the arrogant blessed; evildoers not only prosper but when they put God to the test they escape’" (Mal 3:13b-15).
It must also be noted however, that within the contexts of Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Zechariah, there is a note of hope. God promises that he will one day be their shepherd. Having seen the New Covenant, we already know that God has kept his promise.
God says, through Ezekiel: "I, I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out…I myself will be shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the crippled, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will watch over; I will feed them in justice" (Ez 34:11, 15-16; also cf. Jer 23:3; Zech 11:7, 12-13).
With all of this in the background Jesus says, "I am the good shepherd." Jesus is the one who "will search for my sheep, and will seek them out" (Ez 34:11). Jesus is the one who "will bind up the crippled, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will watch over; I will feed them in justice" (Ez 34:16).
However, Jesus, as the good shepherd, goes beyond what any other shepherd would do for his sheep. "The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep…No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord" (Jn 10:11, 18a).
We can’t just expect Jesus to be our shepherd. In order to be a member of the one flock with the one shepherd we must listen to the voice of the good shepherd.
Brian writes a monthly column, “Veritatis Splendor,” for The Northern Cross of the Diocese of Duluth and his 33-part series on the sacraments for The Northern Cross have also been posted on Catholic News Agency's website, where he also authors a weekly column, “Road to Emmaus,” on the Sunday Readings, (which are translated into Romanian and posted on www.profamilia.ro).
Pizzalato is currently authoring the regular series, "Catechesis and Contemporary Culture," in The Sower, published by the Maryvale Institute. He is also author of the Philosophy of Religion course book for the B.A. in Philosophy and the Catholic Tradition at the Maryvale Institute.
Brian holds an M.A. in Theology and Christian Ministry with a Catechetics specialization and an M.A. in Philosophy from Franciscan University of Steubenville, OH. Brian currently pursuing an M.A. in Biblical Studies at the Augustine Institute in Denver, CO as well as being a Ph.D. candidate at the Maryvale Institute. Brian is married and has six children.