ColumnsSunday’s Word

The Lord is my shepherd

May 3, 2020


Acts 2:14, 36-41

Listeners respond to Peter

Ps 23:1-6

The Lord is my shepherd

1 Pt 2:20-25

You have strayed like sheep

Jn 10:1-10

The Good Shepherd


The fourth Sunday of Easter is “Good Shepherd Sunday.” This means that the 10th chapter of John’s Gospel is the text of interest, distributed across the three liturgical cycles. Here in Cycle A, we proclaim the first part of the chapter. With that in mind, it may be useful to look at the chapter as a whole, to see what it means to take just the first part of it.

In the middle of John 10 the narrative takes a new direction. Up to 10:21 we are at the feast of Tabernacles, a temple feast. This part has the main teaching about the shepherd. But at 10:22, the setting shifts to the feast of Dedication, also a temple feast. It is known to us as Hanukkah. We have a brief revival of the shepherd theme here (10:26-27). That is for Cycle C.

John calls the teachings about the shepherd a “figure of speech” (10:6, paroimia), which is not quite the same as a parable (parabola). As a matter of fact, John doesn’t present us with parables, as the other Gospels do. The only passages that would come close are the two cases of the Good Shepherd, here, and the vine and the branches (15:1-8). Though similar, these passages are more metaphor or allegory than parable.

The “figure of speech” in 10:1-6 has two topics — first, it contrasts the gate and the thief (1-2a); second, it tells of the voice versus the stranger (2b-5). The true shepherd is known by his voice, and that implies a relationship. This is the main lesson of the image at this stage.

After the metaphor, each part is elaborated with lessons. John 10:7-10 begins, “I am the gate.” This is not yet the shepherd, but the gate. Limited access is the point. And the threat that is overcome is that of the thief, who comes to steal and destroy. This is the place where today’s liturgical selection stops.

As the chapter continues, however, it picks up the second part of the allegory. Now we hear “I am the Good Shepherd” for the first time. It expands upon the voice versus the stranger. The voice is that of the familiar shepherd, the “good” one. The opposition is now not the malicious thief, but the unknown stranger. All of this, however, is Cycle B. An interesting re­sult is that we do not have the “Good Shepherd” mentioned by name this year. That is for next year.

It is worth noting that the theme of the shepherd is a well-established biblical theme. In this, it echoes much of Middle Eastern history, in which the shepherd was standard imagery for the oriental ruler. It suggested a politically useful tone of selfless care for the sheep, the people of the nation. The law code of Hammurabi is a famous example of this theme.

In the Bible, the prophets make great use of the theme in criticism of the kings of their day. The classic collection of shepherd passages is Ezekiel 34. It would seem that he gathered together his various oracles and edited them into an unrelenting barrage. The passage in Micah 3:1-4 is also interesting, for he speaks of the kings eating their people! The image is that of a shepherd making dinner of his flock, rather than protecting them.

This history is behind the Gospel’s “Good Shepherd” as well. While there is some tone of consolation for the sheep, the harsh criticism of the leadership is notable. In the liturgy for today, Psalm 23 has the task of providing a comforting tone.

For reflection: Most of us have little experience of shepherding. Is there another image available for today?

Father Beck is professor emeritus of religious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.