Today’s readings certainly contain one of the most powerful and loved images of the Lord Jesus: that of the Good Shepherd. But it is not in drawing parallels between how shepherds take care of their flocks and how Jesus takes care of His church that we find the Good News in today’s Gospel reading. Rather, the Good News is found precisely in that thing which marks Jesus off as unique among the shepherds of the world, that marks Him as alone having the title “Good.” Did you catch it in the reading? Jesus said: “The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
Now shepherds are, of course, duty bound to do all sorts of things for their flocks. They have to water them, they have to feed them, they have to provide them with some sense of security and safety from marauding canines. But what no earthly shepherd is obliged to do is to give his life for the flock. Rather, with us it’s the other way around. The flock gives their life so that the shepherd can eat and live.
Not so with Jesus. Jesus doesn’t talk about doing any of the typical shepherd tasks in our reading. He speaks only of laying down his life, of knowing his sheep, of calling and gathering a single flock together.
The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. Why? Jesus answers simply: “Because he owns them.” They are his. Marked as his own. But they are his in a way that is beyond the mere notion of property, of good investment. No, for who would die, who would give their life so that an investment might go on living? No one. Jesus doesn’t view his flock as so much wealth. After all, his flock has nothing about it that enriches Him! Rather, He cares about His sheep so much because He loves them. That, to Jesus, is the same thing as saying that He owns them. The Sheep belong to Him precisely so that they can be loved and given life. Jesus, as is His way, turns the whole thing upside down, sets it on its head.
Over against the Good Shepherd, He sets the hired hand, who watches out for the flock only so far as it doesn’t endanger him. If danger comes along, the hireling is out of there! He’s not about to risk life or limb for some sheep that he doesn’t even own. No way. “He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.” Again, Jesus equates caring for the sheep with owning them. Two sides of the same coin.
And from that care there flows knowledge. “I am the good shepherd, and I know My own and My own know Me.” Think of what that means! You get a hint when you recall the opposite: what it means to have Jesus Christ say to you on the Last Day: “I never knew you.” When Jesus says that He knows His sheep He means more, though, than just that He has some mental of knowledge of who truly believes and who is only playing at believing, who is a hypocrite. No, Jesus compares His knowledge of the sheep to the way that His Father knows Him and He knows the Father. That is a full, complete knowing and sharing.
Jesus knows His sheep because He knows us in the stark reality of our sinfulness. He doesn’t pretend otherwise. He knows you, my friend. Knows you inside and out. Knows you better than you could even begin to know yourself. He knows you even in the depth of your sin, because He himself knew that depth on His cross. And He came to lay down His life for you. Not only because He knew you, but that you might come to know Him.
“And My own know me.” To know Him as the One who lays an absolute claim on your life, who says that you are His, that you belong to Him. To know Him as the One who not only owns you, not only knows you through and through in all your failure, your sin, your despair and struggles, but the One who loves you. The depth of His love was in the depth of His knowing was in the death of Your sin and mine on Him: the cross. There is the measure of measureless love. There we come to know Him for who He really is. Not just a good Shepherd, but THE Good Shepherd. The One who gives His life for the sheep. “As the Father knows me, even so I know the Father and I lay down my life for the sheep.” All of this, of course, is His gift to you in the waters of Holy Baptism - in which you were marked with the sign of the cross, named as belonging to the Crucified forever. There you get to know Him as your Good Shepherd indeed.
But Jesus will not leave you enjoying all of that alone. He goes on to say: “And I have other sheep that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will listen to My voice. So there will be one flock, one Shepherd.”
Oh, no! The others! In the early Church, the “others” were the Gentiles. Nation after nation. Jesus is always in the business of gathering in the others. And notice who does the verbs. He does. “I must bring them also!” Jesus is the bringer, the gatherer of His flock. But have you ever taken a look, I mean an honest, hard look at the flock that Jesus gathers to Himself from around this world. There are people in that flock that are not like us. There are people in that flock that not only are not like us, but that left to ourselves, we couldn’t even like. And yet Jesus is the one who keeps on bringing them in.
And how is it all going to hold together? How is it possible for there to really be only one flock and only one Shepherd? How? Listen again: “And they will listen to My voice; and there will be one flock, one Shepherd.” The Word of God will be the unity of the Church on earth. In the Word of God, in the voice of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, His sheep can be one flock. In the voice that announces that He is the Good Shepherd who gives His life for the sheep, who knows the sheep through and through, who unites the sheep. All division of Christendom will come to an end, when everything else falls away which wants to be heard next to this one voice and to demand attention. Only then and in that way can we know the one flock under one Shepherd.
Under the One Shepherd in all the world who gives His life for the sheep, who knows the sheep and whose sheep know Him. His voice alone alone can unite the human family and cause us to be one again. His voice, His voice alone, let us hear and heed. And to Him be the glory with His all-holy Father and His life-giving Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages!