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4th Sunday of Easter (22.04.18)
The Carillion Shepherds
A mindset is composed of repeated memories and impressive experiences. If we see a picture of a weather-beaten person with a crooked staff and a sheep dog it will likely prompt thoughts of a shepherd minding sheep. Asked to select an appropriate background setting for a shepherd many would select a rolling pastureland. Would they be correct? The answer is, maybe! But shepherding embraces so much more than minding sheep.
The word shepherd is, nevertheless, correctly associated with the care of sheep, but it is not an exclusive usage. Jesus was not a shepherd in our understanding of the word. In his youth, he, along with all the young boys of the village, probably shared in minding the communal sheep. Yet in John’s Gospel extract for this 4thSunday post Easter (10:11-18) Jesus explicitly calls himself “The Good Shepherd”.
The character of the pastoral shepherd is woven into the language and imagery of the Bible. It could hardly be otherwise as the central part of Judaea, of Jesus’ day, was an extensive plateau of rough, stony ground not suited to agriculture and barely adequate for foraging sheep. Jesus frequently employed the word shepherd, when explaining his vocation because everyone would understand the word’s significance.
‘Carillon’ is a word associated with a melodious peal of bells. ‘Carillion’, differentiated by an extra ‘i’, will live long in peoples’ memories for the discord it has caused. The company, ‘Carillion’, is the latest in a succession of multi-faceted businesses, with very high numbers of employees, that have cascaded into receivership threatening serious unemployment which, in turn, threatens the wellbeing of its employees’ families. The ‘good shepherds’ of any public enterprise are the members of its Board of Directors and their management support staff. How did Carillion’s good shepherds fail so markedly? It’s a question that will echo while awaiting an explanation.
Meanwhile, 21st century worshippers continue to link the word ‘shepherd’, as heard in John’s Gospel for this 4th Sunday (10:11-18), to meadowland dotted with placidly foraging animals accompanied by a human with a hooked staff and a dog. All we need to lull us into inattention is appropriately soothing ‘interval’ music! We rarely broaden our understanding of shepherds to include parents, older siblings, relatives and friends. Nor do we associate shepherding with homes, educational establishments, democratically elected parliaments, as well as boardrooms and the NHS. Shepherds are to be found in any location where people exercise responsibility for their fellow human beings.
Clearly, the quality of shepherding in Jesus’ day varied significantly, as he identified in his teaching. Jesus went further. He not only defined what constitutes good shepherding but he laid claim to being, himself, the benchmark ‘Good Shepherd’ for all time. We live in an evolving world where the challenges to Jesus’ good shepherding standards multiply daily. Jesus calls his disciples to uphold and promote his standards even when their lives are threatened.
Christian discipleship, lived in this world of self-imposed exile, cannot avoid the negativity of an all-consuming greed, the many failures in compassion and a seemingly unrestrictive appetite for violence. A truly Christlike good shepherd of the 21st century should expect to be unremittingly under pressure to compromise, to turn a blind eye, to betray the principles to which he or she has made a commitment through their Baptismal promise.
You may recall that back in January this year a wolf, in the UK, escaped from captivity. It captured national attention until it was recaptured and returned to its enclosure. There have been, and continue to be, wolf-like predators in the corridors of power for decades, even centuries. Most often, such UK predators, far from causing alarm, are lauded with Life Peerages, Knighthoods, Honours and golden handshakes.
Jesus draws the distinction between a good shepherd and a hired shepherd. The former gives of himself, in the care of those he is to lead, up to and including the sacrifice of his own life. In 2017, there were 27 verified cases, worldwide, where Catholic clergy were murdered for their Christlike ‘good shepherding’. In truth, the number is believed to be higher but cannot be proven. There will have been hundreds of Catholic laywomen and men whose deaths or processes of dying resulted from their loyalty to Jesus in the professing of their faith. By comparison, how free we are, though not without distraction, to utter the words of the Creed at Sunday Mass.
Jesus declares: “No one takes it (my life) from me, but I lay it down of my own free will.” “This is why the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.”
Not only our Christian forebears faced martyrdom. Our contemporaries are doing so today for their loyalty to Christ, the Good Shepherd. There are numerous countries and hidden locations where the persecution of Christians is the norm. These martyrs, in laying down their lives, deny their murderers any sense of victory. One Eastern persecutor, it is reported, claimed that he could not continue his murderous activity because, as he explained, “my victims forgive me as I kill them”. Jesus prayed, as they nailed him to the Cross: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)
Every gathering of the Baptised anywhere in the world is an assembly of actual and potential shepherds. Jesus, through St. John’s Gospel, calls us to refocus on The One Good Shepherd; to ask pardon for shepherding failures in the past week or longer; to identify where reparation is necessary and to instigate that reconciliation process without delay.
The delightful ‘Countryfile’ landscapes that fill our screens each Sunday evening, the awe-inspiring photographs that fill the annual ‘Countryfile’ calendar, are good to the eye and healing to the mind. But, as disciples of The Good Shepherd, we know that we must be nourished by what we hear and receive through God’s Word if, daily, our aim is to imitate The Good Shepherd at home, at work or at recreation. In this way we are to pick up again not the staff with the crooked top, but the cross that our Good Shepherd asks us to bear with him in our homes, in offices, laboratories, hospitals, care homes, educational establishments as well as in boardrooms.
In our Father’s universal family there are no hired hands. As The Good Shepherd loves all without exception, the Baptised, as his apprentice-shepherds, aim to follow in his footsteps irrespective of the cost.