I am the Good Shepherd

I’m not sure why it always surprises me how the liturgical seasons so perfectly echo the seasons of the year, but it frequently does. This Sunday, as spring is finally winning its annual battle against winter, we heard the parable of the Good Shepherd.  Who doesn’t associate lambs with spring?

And who doesn’t associate the Good Shepherd with the gentle, smiling man who is willing to leave the 99 sheep to search after the one who is lost?  It is a beautiful image which reflects the love of God for his people, even the lost ones.  Especially the lost ones.

But there is more going on here.  Jesus has been engaged in a confrontation with the Jewish leaders.  He challenged them with his preaching on the Feast of the Tabernacles; then he turned the tables on them with the woman caught in adultery, “He who is without sin, let him cast the first stone.” (John 8:7) Then he really shakes them up by referencing his own divinity, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” (John 8:58)

“I am.”

Two simple words that reveal a very powerful truth. 

In Exodus 3:14 Moses encounters God in the burning bush, and is given the mission of rescuing the Israelites from slavery.  Moses wonders how he will get the Israelites to believe that God sent him to help.  God tells Moses, “I am who I am.”  “And he said, ‘Say this to the sons of Israel: ‘I am has sent me to you.’”  

“I am” meaning the one who exists now, who has always existed, and who will always exist.  This name of God was precious to the Israelites and would have been instantly recognized as a name referencing the Almighty One.

Throughout the Gospel of John, including in this discourse with the Jewish leaders, Jesus asserts several “I am” statements:

I am the Bread of Life (John 6:35)
I am the Light of the World (John 8:12)
I am the Gate (John 10:7)
I am the Good Shepherd (10:11)
I am the Resurrection and the Life. (John 11:25)
I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6)
I am the Vine (John 15:1)

The Jewish leaders recognized these statements for what they were: references to Jesus’ divinity, each illuminating a different aspect of his Godhead.  And they were afraid.

What is so scary about a Good Shepherd, though?

In the Old Testament, the prophet Ezekiel speaks strongly against Israel's corrupt leaders in chapter 34, “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel…” The scripture continues to castigate the leaders as bad shepherds who have neglected their sheep and only cared for themselves.  The prophecy goes on to state that God himself will come to shepherd the people. Similarly,  Jeremiah warns, “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” (Jer 23:1)

Jesus wasn’t calling himself a friendly farmhand — he was saying he is God himself arriving at the end of days to gather the nations to himself.  This is the message that had the Jewish leaders trembling. 

“I am the Good Shepherd,” while a statement that conveys comfort, trust, and security for those who love him, also carries a dire warning to those unfaithful and selfish leaders who have scattered and neglected their flock.

What are the  “I am” statements we use in our own lives, and do we consider the full meaning of them?

If “I am the Good Shepherd” means that the shepherd is not merely watching over the flock until it becomes inconvenient or dangerous, but that he is willing to sacrifice everything for his sheep, what does it mean when I say “I am Catholic?”

Does it mean that I pray sometimes and go to Mass on Sunday?  Or does it mean that I live by a core set of values, try to love my neighbor as myself, and strive to develop an honest relationship with God?

What about other “I am” statements?

I am a mother.
I am a father.
I am a teacher.
I am pro-life.
I am a student.
I am a friend.

I have discovered when it comes to Jesus and the scriptures that there is always a deeper meaning to be unearthed.  Nothing is only what it seems at face value. 

Perhaps spring is a good time, when the earth is fresh and returning to life, to examine our own “I am” statements and ponder how we can cultivate and embody the deeper meanings hidden in them.

May the Good Shepherd bless all of the shepherds in our own lives: priests, pastors, parents, spouses, and leaders of all kinds with the gentle but fierce and sacrificial love of a shepherd for his flock. - Mrs. Lisa Sweet, Academic Dean