If we live in the city, we may have an idealised picture of life in the country. The life of a shepherd may seem like a calm and peaceful existence, walking on the hills in the sunshine. The people of Jesus’ time knew differently. Shepherds were rough, tough men who lived in the fields with their sheep. Robbery and violence were commonplace; the shepherd might have to fight off thieves who came to steal or kill the sheep that he was watching over.
With this parable, Jesus is contrasting himself with the leaders of Israel – the chief priests, scribes and Pharisees. They are ‘bad shepherds,’ who do not know the people or care for them. Immediately before this parable in John’s Gospel comes the story of Jesus restoring the sight of a man born blind. The Pharisees, instead of rejoicing at the healing miracle, are angry with both Jesus and the blind man himself, because the cure was performed on the Sabbath. Their concern for the Law has blinded them to the good that Jesus is doing, and to the power of God working in him.
Jesus, in contrast, is a shepherd who knows each one of his sheep – every disciple – by name. The sheep know his voice and they trust him. Jesus’ desire for his sheep is that each one should have life, and have it to the full (John 10:10.) He wants every one of us to be fully alive, and he gives his own life to free us from our sins. In the words of St Peter in today’s Second Reading: ‘By his wounds you have been healed.’
Today is Good Shepherd Sunday, when the Church prays for vocations to priesthood and consecrated life. The Church needs priests who will be good shepherds; pastors who know the people in their care, who look after them and earn their trust. Pope Francis has called on priests to ‘live with the smell of the sheep’ – to share the lives of the people they serve. Let us pray today that many young men will respond generously to God’s call to serve his people.