“Christ my God, you humbled yourself in order to lift me, a straying sheep, on to your shoulders.” – St. John Damascene
John 10:1-10: ‘I tell you most solemnly, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold through the gate, but gets in some other way is a thief and a brigand. The one who enters through the gate is the shepherd of the flock; the gatekeeper lets him in, the sheep hear his voice, one by one he calls his own sheep and leads them out. When he has brought out his flock, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow because they know his voice. They never follow a stranger but run away from him: they do not recognize the voice of strangers.’ Jesus told them this parable but they failed to understand what he meant by telling it to them. So Jesus spoke to them again: ‘I tell you most solemnly, I am the gate of the sheepfold. All others who have come are thieves and brigands; but, the sheep took no notice of them. I am the gate. Anyone who enters through me will be safe: he will go freely in and out and be sure of finding pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I have come so that they may have life and have it to the full.’
Christ the Lord Israel had long been a shepherding people, and none of these details would have been lost on Jesus’ listeners. Israel’s greatest king was a shepherd (David), and it is one of the favorite images of God in the psalms and the prophets: “Yahweh is my shepherd, I lack nothing…” (Psalm 23). By assuming this identity, Christ asserts both our need for his guidance and care and his great willingness to provide it.
When a lamb is particularly rambunctious or adventurous, repeatedly putting itself in danger, a shepherd will sometimes purposely break one of its legs. He then puts the lamb around his neck until its leg is healed. By that time, the little lamb has become attached to the shepherd, and it never again strays far from its master’s protection and guidance.
Jesus wants us to know who he is: the Good Shepherd who protects and cares for the people of God just as a shepherd does his sheep. He does not claim to be one among many, but the only one: “All others who have come are thieves and brigands.” Some religious leaders and philosophers throughout history have claimed to be saviors, claimed to have all the answers, but they were really consumed by pride, greed, or lust. Others sincerely sought to better this world, but simply did not have enough wisdom or power to provide the human family with the kind of hope we long for and need. Jesus Christ, on the other hand, not only wants to give us abundant life, but he can. Omniscient, omnipotent, and eternal, he combines utter goodness with unlimited wisdom and power. With his flock, the problem is not the shepherd’s powerlessness or ignorance, but the sheep’s lack of docility: we stray from the flock and trap ourselves in thistles and swamps. As Christians, we don’t only have a good Shepherd, but the perfect Shepherd; now all we need is to be sensible sheep and listen to the voice of the One we know.
Christ the Teacher A flock of sheep needs both protection and nourishment. The corral (sheepfold) provides the protection, and the fields provide the food and water. Without the corral, they are vulnerable to attack (sheep are notoriously bad at self-defense), and without the pasture, they starve. When Christ calls himself the “gate” for the sheep, he is claiming to provide us with everything we need, both the sheepfold and the pasture.
In Palestine, shepherds often sleep in the opening of the sheepfold, which is made out of a large circle of thick, high shrubbery. In this way, the shepherds both scare away the wolves and keep the sheep together: wolves smell their presence and are afraid to make midnight raids, while the sheep have no desire to walk over the shepherd to escape through the opening since they recognize him as a sign of security. When day finally dawns, the shepherd will rise and lead his sheep out to pasture. Thus the gate, the door to the sheep pen, symbolizes the complete attention and care given by a good shepherd. Christ chooses this image to teach us what he wants to be for each of us: everything.
Christ the Friend Sheep grow accustomed to their shepherd, and vice versa. When a shepherd leads his sheep out to graze, he walks in front of them, speaking or singing to them. They recognize his voice and follow along. Very different is the cattle driver, who pushes the herd from behind by force. A shepherd knows which sheep tend to wander off from the flock, which tend to lead others astray, and which he can count on to stay close beside him – he knows each by name.
Sheep are also infamously dependent. They are defenseless against their carnivorous predators. They will gnaw a little patch of grass down to dirt and then starve instead of looking over the next hill for fresh pasture. They will follow one another to their deaths over the edge of a cliff before breaking ranks. If any animal needs husbanding, it’s the sheep; sheep depend on their shepherd. And shepherds always want their sheep to be healthy and happy. They want them to have the best grass, fresh water, and safety so that they can grow and multiply as much as possible. A sheep has no greater friend than a good shepherd, and we have no greater friend than Christ. He invented life, he gave us life, and he came so that, in him, we might learn to live it “to the full.”
Christ in My Life If I believed in you the way I really ought to, I would pray more, study the Scriptures more, and make a more concerted effort to discover and embrace your will in the daily hustle and bustle of life. I’m not a very good sheep, Lord. I get distracted by the seductions of other shepherds – the ones who are thieves and robbers. Forgive me, Lord. Teach me to do your will…
So many people are wandering through life like lost sheep, Lord. They are looking for good pastures, for guidance. They are fearful of wolves, and they don’t know how to distinguish friends from enemies or wise counselors from charlatans. Call out to them. They need you. Teach me to be a loudspeaker for your voice, so those around me can find you and come into the fold where they belong…
It is hard for me to admit that I need you as much as I do. Why is that, Lord? Why do I think I can be so self-sufficient when, in fact, I know very well that I am constantly stumbling along and messing things up? You are a God who comes to watch over me and guide me. My greatest glory, Lord, is to be loved by you. Free me to trust wholly in your goodness and obey fully your will…
PS: This is just one of 303 units of Fr. John’s fantastic book The Better Part.
Art for this post on John 10:1-10: Cover of The Better Part used with permission. Modified detail of Mosaic of Christ the Good Shepherd, Viktor Foerster, 1908, PD-US author’s life plus 70 years or less, Wikimedia Commons.
About Fr. John Bartunek, LC
Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college, he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, “Inside the Passion”–the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: “The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer”. His most recent books are “Spring Meditations”, “Seeking First the Kingdom: 30 Meditations on How to Love God with All Your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength”, and “Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions”. Fr. John currently splits his time between Michigan (where he continues his writing apostolate and serves as a confessor and spiritual director at the Queen of the Family Retreat Center) and Rome, where he teaches theology at Regina Apostolorum. His online, do-it-yourself retreats are available at RCSpirituality.org, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at SpiritualDirection.com.