by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“A hireling (hired hand) is not a real shepherd. The sheep mean nothing to him. He sees a wolf come and runs for it, leaving the sheep to be ravaged and scattered by the wolf. He’s only in it for the money. The sheep don’t matter to him. I am the Good Shepherd. I know my own sheep and my own sheep know me. In the same way, the Father knows me and I know the Father. For these sheep I will give my life. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must lead them, too.” John 10, 11-18

In English, the word “hireling” is a derogatory term, equivalent to somebody who is a mercenary, who works only for the money and lacks a sense of responsibility for whatever he or she is engaged to do. The irony, of course, is that most of us started our working lives as hired hands, and progressed through the ranks only by demonstrating that we were able to act responsibly.

It seems that, from the way Jesus uses the word “hireling” in today’s gospel-reading, it had a derogatory connotation even in his time. It strikes me that John has constructed this section of his Gospel to highlight Jesus’ repeated criticism of the Jewish religious leaders of his time who, in his view, were closer to being mercenaries than to compassionate carers taking proper responsibility for the people they were appointed to look after. By proclaiming “I am the good shepherd” and repeating (five times) that a good shepherd “lays down his life for his sheep”, Jesus clearly signalled that he wanted no connection with the appointed religious leaders of his day.

In his Gospel, John attributes to Jesus seven “I am” statements: “I am the Bread of Life (6, 28-36)…the Light of the World (8, 12-30) …the door/gate (10, 9)…the good shepherd (10, 11-30)…the resurrection and the life (11, 17-27)…the way, the truth and the life (14, 6)…the true vine (15, 1-6).   The only one of those statements in which he attributes to himself an actively human role of caring is “I am the good shepherd”, and the significant word is “good” in contrast to the officially appointed, religious shepherds who fail to measure up.

At the very core of his role as shepherd is the intimate relationship he has with those whom he shepherds: “I know mine and mine know me.” Moreover he proceeds to explain how that relationship is like the intimacy he has with God – “I know my sheep and my sheep know me in the same way that the Father knows me and I know the Father” (John 10, 15).

So far, this reflection is something like a theological excursion into today’s gospel-reading in an attempt to make meaning of it by looking at it from the outside. However, to engage with it means making a move from the position of observer to that of participant. I suggest that John’s intention, (and Jesus’ intention, too,) was to alert us first of all to the responsibilities that fall to those who claim to be followers of Jesus. By putting ourselves in that category, we, too, commit ourselves to being good shepherds – spending our energy, directing our skills and giving our time to those we are privileged to serve. It means doing what we can to release those around us from fear, doubt and uncertainty, opening a way for them to shape their own lives in freedom, encouraging them to create a future for themselves with the dignity to which they are entitled. It means challenging the systemic injustices that rob struggling people of their rights, and enabling them to claim a voice for themselves. It surely demands that we set aside our own wants, needs and fears so that we can grow into shepherds of reconciliation, compassion and freedom for others.

Jesus stated, with no ifs or buts: “I know mine and mine know me”. If we claim to be one of his, we have to be prepared to allow his Spirit to guide us in getting to know him with some degree of intimacy. That surely means investing time in prayer and reflection, in being present to God present in everything around and within us, and in everyone we encounter in our day-to-day living. That demands making space for prayer and reflection.

Shepherding, let’s not forget, is double-edged. True, we have to learn to be good and sensitive at shepherding others. We also know from experience the need we have for being shepherded ourselves. Yet, so often it is more comfortable to feel needed than to be needy.

As we reflect on this gospel-reading, let’s not skip over Jesus’ comment: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must lead them, too, and they shall hear my voice” (John 10, 16). Membership in Jesus’ flock requires only one thing: Listening to his voice. Both Matthew and Luke highlight that in their accounts of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan and his transfiguration on the mountain, with the accompanying voice from the heavens: “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him” (Luke 9, 35; Matthew 17, 5). Sadly, there have been groups and institutions that have claimed exclusive ownership of Jesus and his Gospel, rejecting those who have not been admitted to signed-up membership.

The real challenges of today’s gospel-reading are, in essence, to be met in the way we respond to a few simple, yet demanding, questions: Do I listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd inviting me to shepherd and be shepherded? Am I prepared to spend my life reaching out to those with whom I am asked to share the blessings I have been given, for no other reason than that Jesus says to me: “I love you and you are mine!”? He says exactly that to everyone else as he invites us to be instruments of his love.