Our Collaborative Ministry as Shepherds

A Reflection by Fr. Peter for 4th Sunday of Easter (Year B).
Acts 4:8-12 – 1 John 3:1-2 – John 10:11-18.

On the Fourth Sunday of Easter, our attention is drawn to Christ’s role as the Good Shepherd. In the Gospel, Christ is the Good Shepherd, the one Shepherd who cares for each one of His sheep so much that He is prepared to lay down His life for them (vv.11, 15). Our Lord speaks of the danger of leaving a flock in the charge of a hired hand, because that man’s priority will be to save himself rather than the flock when a predator attacks. A hired hand, having no personal investment in the wellbeing of the sheep, will abandon them when they are in danger. As the Shepherd who lays down His life for His sheep (v.11), Our Lord demonstrates His great concern for them, does not allow them to stray or be attacked, and is constantly vigilant against human ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing’. He knows each and every one of His sheep, and they listen to His voice because they recognise Him as their Good Shepherd. The parable of the Lost Sheep (Mt 18:10ff) assures us that every person born into this world is chosen by God and of infinite value to Him.

There is a story of a shepherd who took his sheep out from the safety of the sheepfold to feed every morning. As the sheep grazed, he kept vigil over them. One day, as he sat in the fields, watching over his sheep, he noticed a wolf skulking behind a tree in the distance. As a preventative measure, bearing in mind the harm a wolf is capable of wreaking on sheep, the shepherd rose and led his flock to safety. The wolf followed them, keeping a low profile, and did not get anywhere near enough to do the sheep harm. The shepherd, being a few beads short of a Rosary, stupidly thought to himself, oh, maybe this wolf is lonely, maybe it’s not dangerous, maybe it just wants to be friendly – and pursuing this line of thought, he allowed the wolf to stay around the sheep. As time went on, he even allowed the wolf to mingle with the sheep.

The fateful day came when the shepherd’s attention was diverted. Momentarily forgetting that there was a wolf lurking around his sheepfold, he left his sheep in order to attend to an emergency at home. While he was away dealing with that, it occurred to him that the wolf was alone with the sheep, but convinced himself (going on the wolf’s past behaviour) that the sheep were safe enough. When he finally returned to the field, he found his sheep distraught. Those that were still in one piece had scattered to the four winds. At the far end of the field, the wolf was busy devouring a carcass, while a good many sheep lay bitten and bleeding in the grass. Profoundly regretful for abandoning his sheep to the wolf, the shepherd rushed after it – but he was too late. How the shepherd  regretted having trusted the wolf! Christ, the one true and Good Shepherd, calls us to be vigilant against threats from ‘wolves’ with two legs that come to scatter, wound and devour His sheep. He cares for each one of us and He calls us to be on the alert to care for each other. We are called first of all to vertical Communion in loving and worshipping God and following in the footsteps of Christ, the Good Shepherd; and secondly to horizontal Communion in loving our neighbour for His sake, looking out for one another and working together harmoniously as a united flock.

For all Christ’s followers, shepherding and being shepherded require synergy between everyone within the sheepfold of Christ, be they ordained or lay. We are all in the sheepfold of the Church together. The Lord is the Shepherd (Ps 23:1), and the rod and staff (Ps 23:4) belong to Him! Tough love is sometimes needed, because sheep are inclined to wander and get themselves into trouble; its deployment – whether by the Good Shepherd or by the Church – manifests God’s mercy and discipline. Jesus took Peter aside (Jn 21: 15f) after Peter had denied Him three times, humbled Peter without humiliating him, and instructed him to feed My lambs and feed my sheep. Peter was appointed by Our Lord as the primary shepherd (Jn 21:17) and as the rock on which the Church will stand (Mt 16:18). The successors of Peter are there to prevent us from straying like sheep and to return us to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls (1Pet 2:25). Peter was not alone in his vocation: John (cf. Peter’s response if you are questioning us to the rulers of Israel in the First Reading) and the other apostles served as the first bishops, and laymen were commissioned as elders to serve the Christian community at local level. Similarly, St John in the Second Reading reminded us of our personal status as children of God: We are already called children of God, he wrote (v.1). Collaborative ministry, using our differing gifts (Rom 12:6), is an essential aspect to our vocation as Christians. Is collaborative ministry plain sailing? Alas, it is not. Human frailty gets in the way.

You’ll probably be familiar with the fable of the mischievous shepherd-boy who took his flock out to graze in the fields near a forest. One day, he thought it would be fun to wind up the farmers working nearby. He screamed: “Wolf! Wolf! There’s a wolf attacking my sheep!” The farmers heard his cries and ran as fast as they could to help.  When they got there, however, the sheep were munching away happily. There was no sign of a wolf. “Where is the wolf? enquired the men, panting from their exertions. The shepherd-boy fell around laughing and admitted his joke. The farmers were absolutely furious about being hauled out unnecessarily, and had strong words with the boy about the false alarm before stalking off in a huff. He, however, thought it was terribly funny and just laughed off their warning. He pulled the same stunt several times, and howled with laughter whenever the farmers came rushing up to help.

Of course, the day came when a wolf really did emerge from the forest to attack the flock. The boy was horrified when he saw the wolf savaging the sheep, and he screamed “Wolf! Wolf” at the top of his lungs … but to no avail. None of the farmers took him seriously. The boy kept on and on screaming, but no one came to help. The farmers assumed that the boy was up to his usual tricks. Having mangled the flock, the wolf loped off into the forest with a lamb dangling helplessly in its jaws. How the boy regretted his past antics that made the farmers lose their trust in him. He lost a lamb because he lost the trust of the farmers.

Hitler’s Minister for Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, declared that, “a lie told once remains a lie, but a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth”. In our own day, the mainstream media and social media are guilty of bombarding us and confusing us with propaganda. How, then, can we discern what is true?  Jesus Himself IS The Truth (Jn 14:6). Trust based on truth is an essential virtue for us to exercise, both as Christian shepherds and as Christian sheep. The farmers’ trust in the shepherd-boy’s cries was lost over time. Conversely, how important it is for us to build up and boost the level of trust between ourselves and our fellow Christians day by day. Today’s Gospel exhorts us to love in deed and in truth (v.18). Let us pray that the Good Shepherd will gift His people with the confidence to place their trust in Him, and gift each one of us to collaborate with each other as shepherds gifted with the mind of Christ. Amen. God bless you.