THE GOOD SHEPHERD – Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year B

April 21, 2024

Revised Common Lectionary
Acts 4:5-12
Psalm 23
1 John 3:16-24
John 10:11-18

Lectionary for Mass (RC)
Acts 4:8-12
Psalm 118:1, 8-9, 21-23, 26, 28, 29 (22)
1 John 3:1-2
John 10:11-18

Social justice and anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela served twenty-seven years in prison before going on to become the first President of South Africa chosen in a fully democratic election. During his five years (1994-1999) in office, he oversaw the dismantling of a system that had severely disadvantaged the Black majority while favoring the White minority.

Throughout his career, Mandela spoke about the qualities of a good leader, including forgiveness and reconciliation, vision and hope, discipline and consistency, empathy and compassion. Mandela not only talked about these values—he modeled them. He brought to the work of reshaping South African society these very same qualities. He emphasized forgiveness and reconciliation as a way forward, appointing Archbishop Desmond Tutu as chair of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Mandela was widely respected as a leader who not only cared for people of his own nation but became an envoy for peace and social justice around the world.

In today’s reading from the Gospel of John, Jesus spoke to a hostile audience of religious leaders about his own leadership, declaring, “I am the good shepherd” (Jn 10:11, 14). These words were packed with meaning for those who first heard them. This saying is one of the many “I am” statements in John, all of which are clear and deliberate references to the response that Moses received at the burning bush when he asked for God’s name and heard, “I AM WHO I AM” (Ex 3:14).

Throughout John’s Gospel, Jesus uses this formulation, “I am,” to reveal the many ways that he embodies the presence of God, including “the bread of Life” (6:35), “the light of the world” (8:12), and “the resurrection and the life” (11:25). When Jesus declares that he is the good shepherd, he not only identifies himself with God’s name, but also with God’s care for the people.

Jesus clearly implied that the religious leaders in Jerusalem were not shepherds at all, but rather were like a “hired hand” who “does not care for the sheep” (10:13). His language in this passage evokes the prophecy of Ezekiel against the political and religious leaders of his own time. Through the prophet God calls them out for neglecting and preying on the flock: “I am against the shepherds and I will demand my sheep at their hand” (Ez 34:10).

In their place, God pledges, “I myself will be the 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 injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice” (Ez 34:15-16). In much the same way, the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel are both reassurance for those in need of a caring leader and a biting critique of those who abuse their position through negligence, division, or intimidation.

As the “good shepherd,” Jesus embraced as his own the mission to seek, gather, heal, and strengthen. The English word “good” unfortunately fails to convey the full sense of the Greek word kalos, which might be more accurately rendered as “genuine” or “model.” He is the true leader of the flock, who even lays down his life for the sheep then takes it up again (Jn 10:17).

The words of Jesus have implications for both leaders and followers today. They suggest that those who have charge of others in any community should be measured against the example of the good/model shepherd. Authentic leaders work for the common good above all else, reach out to those who are lost or marginalized, seek to bring people together, and call out injustice against the vulnerable. Imagine an election campaign, a search committee, or even a church council where these elements were the primary considerations for choosing or evaluating leaders.

Today’s Gospel also reminds Christian believers that as we live out our Easter faith in community, our allegiance is primarily to Christ rather than any religious or political leader. The path of discipleship may be challenging and even costly, but we can follow with confidence in the Good Shepherd’s care for us. We rejoice today in the depth of his love: “I lay down my life in order to take it up again” (Jn 10:17). The Good Shepherd has risen and remains with us to guide and care for us even when others fail.

A Hymn for Today: “Good Shepherd, You Know Us”

Anglican priest Christopher M. Idle is a long-time member of the Jubilate Group of British hymn and song writers, which started in the early 1980s and continues to this day. They were part of a larger ecumenical “hymn explosion” that began to flourish during that period. This text by Idle is based on today’s Gospel reading from John 10.

Good Shepherd, you know us, you call us by name.
You lead us; we gladly acknowledge your claim.
Your voice has compelled us; we come at your call.
And none you have chosen will finally fall.

Good Shepherd, you warn us of robbers and thieves,
The hireling, the wolf who destroys and deceives.
All praise for your promise on which we shall stand,
That no one can snatch us from out of your hand.

Good Shepherd, you lay down your life for the sheep.
Your love is not fickle, your gift is not cheap.
You spend your life freely, you take it again.
You died, so we live; we are healed by your pain.

At one with the Father, you made yourself known:
“I am the Good Shepherd,” at one with your own.
You loved us before we had heeded or heard;
By grace we respond to your lifegiving word.

Text: Christopher M. Idle, b. 1938. © 2001, 2002, 2005, The Jubilate Group, admin. by Hope Publishing Co. Used by permission under OneLicense #A-729857.

Image Credit: Good Shepherd, Kelly Latimore, 2019

“Word and Song: A Lectionary Reflection” is written by the Executive Director of The Hymn Society, Rev. Dr. Mike McMahon. For his full bio, click here and scroll down to the “staff” section.

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