The Hunted Shepherd

Happy Good Shepherd Sunday! Each year the Fourth Sunday of Easter is our parish feast day, our special annual celebration.

What do you think of when you hear this title of Jesus, the Good Shepherd? Maybe for some of us we are reminded of the 23rd Psalm, and we feel a sense of comfort.

But the Good Shepherd image we encounter in John is not some pastel-colored, warm afternoon lying on the grass. If when we think of the Good Shepherd we imagine some sort of bright Monet landscape, the reality is more like Picasso’s Guernica.

It’s the context that makes all the difference. The story of the Good Shepherd is how Jesus explains what happens when he heals the man born blind, a gospel story you may recall from a few weeks ago. For his compassion, Jesus is investigated by the authorities, who are anxious to find any reason to kill him.

After that, when Jesus in in town for Chanukah, he talks again about being the Good Shepherd in the gospel passage we heard today. In response, the authorities try to stone him. But he stares them down, looking them in the eye and telling them no one can take his life, only he can lay it down. And then he escapes, narrowly.

The Good Shepherd we learn about in today’s gospel is not an all-powerful protector. He is someone who is himself in danger even as he protects the sheep. This is not a sunny walk through the grassy meadow. It is a night of terror, huddled together as we hide from a band of robbers searching for us pass along a nearby ridge and hear the howl of wolves all around us.

The Good Shepherd is the hunted shepherd.

Consider the passage in John that occurs just before today’s gospel reading:

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.
I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

The thieves and robbers Jesus was talking about were the religious authorities who are supposed to be shepherds but instead look out for their own interests.

That’s what the people of San Salvador were afraid of in February 1977 when they heard who their new archbishop would be. He had been an auxiliary before, and was known for preferring the wealthy over the poor, for dogmatic harangues against progressives in the diocesan newspaper, for a certain cold rigidity. Few would have considered him a good shepherd.

One month later, a good friend of the archbishop, a Jesuit who was devoted to the poor, was murdered by the right-wing Salvadoran government. This awoke something in Archbishop Oscar Romero, and he turned against the wealthy and the powerful to stand with the poorest of the poor, seeking to protect them even as his own life was in danger. He was now a hunted shepherd. He heard the robbers pass by looking for him and the wolves all around him, but he stayed with the sheep in the night.

Archbishop Romero became a Good Shepherd. He came that the people of El Salvador could have life, and have it abundantly.

In order for us to share that abundant life, we must know some of the terror. That is part of the paradox of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, that to gain the world we must give it up, to be first we must be last. That it is better to mourn, that it’s better to be humble that it’s better to be poor in spirit, even though the world tells us the exact opposite will make us happy.

But the abundant life Jesus offers us is real and intense. It invites us to be a part of the suffering of others that we may find real joy. Just as he called Archbishop Romero to a better life, a life of radical compassion, so he calls each of us to that same life.

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.
I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

Only three years after becoming archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero was celebrating Mass in a hospital chapel. Just as the raised the cup during the eucharistic prayer, shots rang out. The archbishop fell to the floor, the chalice spilled all around him.

250,000 mourners from all over the world came for his funeral Mass in the cathedral of San Salvador. As the crowds filled the cathedral and spilled into the huge plaza, bombs exploded and government snipers killed random mourners as they prayed the Mass.

We’re still in the middle of our Easter celebration. This celebration began on Holy Saturday night with the Easter Proclamation. One section of the proclamation goes like this:

The sanctifying power of this night dispels wickedness,
washes faults away, restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to mourners,
drives out hatred, fosters concord, and brings down the mighty.

If we have no troubles, no concerns, if we think our society is wonderful and fair and just, then we have no need for a Good Shepherd. Then we would be like the wealthy families of El Salvador, to whom a good shepherd was one who maintained the status quo. Someone who stands with the mighty against the lowly.

But if we can really and truly come to realize that we need a Good Shepherd, a hunted shepherd, we can begin to live a new, abundant life.

Read an eyewitness account of the massacre at the funeral of Archbishop Romero.

Readings: Acts 4:8-12; 1 John 3:1-2; John 10:11-18

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