Fourth Sunday of Easter – 2018
Whenever Jesus talks about sheep and shepherds I realise that I am listening to a “foreign language”. I am a city boy, growing up in Chicago and attending a seminary in a near-by suburb. I never even saw a live sheep until I went to Rome to do my studies after ordination. I never had anything to do with sheep. I saw great numbers of them when I studied in England and even larger numbers of them when I came to Australia. But whenever people talked about sheep and shepherds I had the feeling that I was a foreigner.
So when Jesus says that He is the Good Shepherd because he lays down his life for his sheep, I believe it because he said it. But I really don’t know if every shepherd would make the same judgment or if the owner of a large sheep farm would feel the same way.
But I do understand that if someone loves another being (sheep or person) and has responsibility for the other, he or she would be willing to lay down his or her life for the other. I have heard of mothers covering their child with her own body when there was danger of being killed so that the child would live. My brother who fought in World War II told me stories of soldiers taking a bullet to save the life of a friend.
The closest I have ever come to understanding what Jesus was saying was when one of my former students, a Comboni missionary, was killed in Brazil. I had taught him Liberation Theology. In his mission there was a conflict between land-owners who wanted to keep their land free for grazing for their cattle and squatters who had nowhere else to go. Violence erupted. He began to meet with the squatters and land-owners. He was making progress in finding a peaceful solution. But one evening after a meeting he was ambushed by some land-owners and was killed; they were not pleased with the settlement he was negotiating. I was asked to preach at his Memorial Service at our school in Chicago. I think I then finally understood what Jesus meant when he said that the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.
Jesus also says about a “good shepherd”: I know my own and my own know me. I learned something about “knowing my own” when I was chaplain for a SPRED (Special Religious Education Program) community. The catechists taught me how important it was to know the name of these mentally or physically disabled children (to use the language that we used thirty years ago) and to use their name whenever we celebrated a sacrament together. I also had an experience of knowing how important it was for a “good shepherd” to know my name. When Cardinal Bernardin arrived in Chicago to lead the diocese the priests wanted to know how he wanted to be called. He said: “My name is Joe; call me Joe.” We couldn’t help wondering if he really meant it. But one time when he was at our school I had to get past him and I said: Excuse me, your Eminence. He turned around and looked at me and said: Larry, my name is Joe. I was surprised that he knew my name, and perhaps even more surprised that he wanted me to call him Joe.
The other thing that Jesus said is that we will know him as the good shepherd and will want to follow him. There were a number of cursillistas in a parish where I helped out, and every Saturday morning a number of us would go out for breakfast. We would share our closest moment to Christ during the past week. One of the men told the story of his experience at a conference “downtown”. As he was leaving he saw a man who had too much alcohol weaving down the hallway. He caught up with him and said: where are you going? He replied: I’m driving home. He said: no you are not; give me your keys. When he got in the car he found out that the man lived in a suburb most distant from his own. But he kept driving. When he asked the man for his address he found that the man had passed out. So he went into his wallet, found the address, took him into his back door, put the keys on the table next to him, left and then walked three miles to find a cab to get back to his car and go back home, arriving there at 4 AM. When we asked if he had left a note for the man he said: no, I was taking care of Christ, and he knew who I was. It was his moment closest to Christ.Larry Nemer