Slide 15 Slide 2 Foto di Filippo Maria Gianfelice

“I AM THE GOOD SHEPHERD” - Third Lenten Sermon 2024

Friday March 8th, 2024

We continue our reflection on the great “I Am” sayings of Christ in the Gospel of John. This time Jesus does not present himself to us with symbols of inanimate physical realities —bread, light —, but with a human character, the shepherd: “I,” he says, “am the good shepherd!” Let’s listen to the section containing Christ’s self-proclamation:
I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. A hired man, who is not a shepherd and whose sheep are not his own, sees a wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away, and the wolf catches and scatters them. This is because he works for pay and has no concern for the sheep. I am the good shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I will lay down my life for the sheep (Jn 10:11-15).
The image of Christ the “Good Shepherd” had a privileged place in early Christian art and inscriptions. In the beginning, the Good Shepherd is presented, according to the classical form, in the splendor of youth. He carries on his shoulders a sheep which he holds firmly by its legs. The Johannine image of the good shepherd is fused with the synoptic one of the shepherd who goes in search of the lost sheep (Lk 15:4-7).
The context of the passage on the good shepherd is the same as the two previous chapters, that is, the discussion with “the Jews” which takes place in Jerusalem on the occasion of the Feast of Tabernacles. But we know that, in John, the context is less mattering, because, unlike the Synoptics, he is not concerned with giving us a historical and coherent account of the life of Jesus (which he seems to take for granted), but a set of “signs” and teachings of the Master. These, however, never appear outside of time and space, as happens in theology books, but they too are located in precise places and times (sometimes more precise than the Synoptics themselves) which give them a “historical” value in the deepest sense of the term.
* * *
Let’s face it, the image of the good shepherd, and the related images of sheep and flock, are not really fashionable nowadays. Isn’t Jesus afraid of hurting our sensitivity and offending our dignity as free human beings by calling us his sheep? Today’s people disdainfully reject the role of sheep and the idea of a flock. However, they do not realize how much they experience in practice the situation that they condemn in theory. One of the most evident phenomena of our society is massification. Press, television, internet are called “mass media” not only because they inform the masses, but also because they form them.
We let ourselves be guided supinely by all sorts of manipulation and occult persuasion. Others create models of well-being and behavior, ideals, and goals of progress, and people adopt them; we follow, fearful of losing pace, conditioned and plagiarized by advertising. We eat what they tell us, dress as fashion dictates, and speak as we hear. We laugh when we see a film running at an accelerated pace, with people moving by fits and starts, like puppets; but it that is precisely the image we would have of ourselves if we were to look at ourselves with a more critical eye.
To understand in what sense Jesus proclaims himself the good shepherd and calls us his sheep, we must go back to biblical history. In the beginning, Israel was a people of nomadic shepherds. The Bedouins of the desert today give us an idea of what life was once like for the tribes of Israel. In this society, the relationship between shepherd and flock is not only economic, that is, based on interest. An almost personal relationship develops between the shepherd and the flock. Spending day after day together in solitary places, without a living soul around, the shepherd ends up knowing everything about every sheep. The sheep recognize the voice of the shepherd who often talks out loud to the sheep, as if they were people. This explains why, to express his relationship with humanity, God used this image, which has now become ambiguous. “You, shepherd of Israel, listen, you who guide Joseph like a flock,”prays the psalmist (Ps 80:2).
With the change of being a nomadic tribe to that of being a settled people, the title of shepherd is given, by extension, also to those who act as representatives of God on earth: kings, priests, leaders in general. But in this case, the symbol diverges; it no longer evokes only images of protection and security, but also exploitation and oppression. Alongside the image of the good shepherd, that of the bad shepherd makes its appearance. In the prophet Ezekiel we find a terrible indictment against the bad shepherds who feed only themselves. They feed on milk and dress in wool, but they don’t care in the slightest about the sheep who they actually treat “with cruelty and violence” (Ez 34:1ff). This indictment against bad shepherds is followed by a promise: God himself will one day take loving care of his flock:
The lost I will search out, the strays I will bring back, the injured I will bind up, and the sick I will heal (Ez 34:16).
In the Gospel, Jesus takes up this theme of the good and bad shepherd, but with something new.“I am the good shepherd!” he says. God’s promise has become reality, exceeding all expectations.
* * *
At this point, we must recall our initial intent behind these meditations: a personal intent rather than “pastoral,” to make the Gospel penetrate our lives, in order to be able to announce it to the world with more credibility.
Jesus’ speech has two actors: the shepherd and the flock, meaning every single sheep (in the singular). Which of the two will we identify with? On the anniversary of his episcopal ordination, Saint Augustine said to the people: “For you I am a bishop, with you I am a Christian!”“Vobis sum episcopus, vobiscum sum christianus.” And on another occasion: “In relation to you we are like shepherds, but in relation to the Chief Shepherd we are sheep like you.” Let us therefore put aside our role –some of you as shepherds and I as a preacher, and let us feel for once only and uniquely sheep of the flock. Let us remember the question that was more important to Jesus at Caesarea: “For you, who am I?”as if he said: “Forget for a moment who I am according to the people, and focus on yourself.”
The great psychologist Carl Gustav Jung defined a psychiatrist as “A wounded healer.” The meaning of his theory is that you need to know your own psychological wounds to heal those of others and that knowing the wounds of others helps to heal your own. The psychoanalyst’s intuition also applies to spiritual wounds. The pastor of the Church is also a “wounded healer,” a sick person who must help others to be healed.
Let’s try to understand what the main disease is that we need to be treated for, in order to cure others. What is the one thing that, from one end of the Bible to the other, is instilled in the sheep regarding God the Shepherd? It is not to be afraid! The words crowd into the memory, at this point, starting with those of Jesus: “Do not be afraid, little flock” (Lk 12: 32);“Why are you terrified, O you of little faith?” he said to the apostles after having calmed the storm (Mt 8:26). Let us also remember some familiar words from the psalms, not as mere biblical quotations, but by making them our own now as we hear them:
The LORD is my shepherd;
there is nothing I lack.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for you are with me;
your rod and your staff comfort me. (Ps 23:1.4).

The LORD is my light and my salvation;
whom should I fear?
The LORD is my life’s refuge;
of whom should I be afraid? (Ps 27:1).
So, let’s talk about this “dark evil” of fear which has so much power to rob people of the joy of living. Fear is our existential condition; it accompanies us from childhood to death. The child is afraid of many things; we call them infantile terrors. The adolescent is sometimes afraid of the opposite sex and becomes entangled in shyness and inferiority complexes. Jesus gave a name to our main fears as adults: fear of tomorrow – “what will we eat?” (Mt 6:31); fear of the world and the powerful – “those who kill the body”(Mt 10:28).On each of these fears he pronounced his own: Nolite timere! “Do not be afraid!”This is not an empty and powerless word, but an effective and almost sacramental word. Like all the words of Jesus, it does what it says; it’s not like the simple,“Take courage!”that we human beings might say to each other.
* * *
But what is fear? Let’s leave aside the existential anguish that philosophers have been discussing for a century and a half now. Let’s talk about common and familiar fears. We can say that fear is a reaction to a threat to our being, the response to a real or perceived danger, from the greatest danger of all which is that of death, to specific dangers that threaten either our tranquility, physical safety, or our emotional world. Fear is a manifestation of our basic instinct for self-preservation. Depending on whether we are dealing with objective and real dangers or imaginary ones, we talk about justified and unjustified fears, or even neuroses: claustrophobia, agoraphobia, imaginary illnesses, and so on.
Psychology and psychoanalysis try to heal people’s fears and neuroses by analyzing them and bringing them from the unconscious to the conscious. The Gospel does not distract from these human means, indeed it encourages them, but adds something that science cannot provide. Saint Paul writes:

“What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword?… No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us” (Rom 8:35-37).

Here, liberation is not found in an idea or a technique, but in a person! The “solvent” of all fear is Christ who has said to his disciples: “Do not be afraid,I have overcome the world” (Jn 16:33).From the personal sphere, the Apostle then broadens his gaze to the great scenario of space and time, from small individual fears to large and universal ones. He writes:

“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powersnor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”(Rom 8:38-39).

“Neither death nor life!” Christ has conquered the thing that scares us most in the world, death. The Letter to the Hebrews says of him that he died “That through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who through fear of death had been subject to slavery all their life”(Heb 2:14-15).

“Neither height nor depth!”, which is to say: neither the infinitely large which is the universe with its ever-expanding proportions, nor the infinitely small – the atom –of which we have discovered, at our own risk, the terrible power. Today we are more exposed than ever to this kind of cosmic fear. Modern man acutely feels his vulnerability in a violent and mad world. What will become of the future of our planet if, despite the cries of alarm from the Pope and the most responsible people in society, we continue, with full rein, to consume and pollute?

At the end of his philosophical reflections on the danger of technology for modern man, Martin Heidegger, almost throwing in the towel, exclaimed: “Only a god can save us!” “A god” (small letter!) is the usual mythical way to talk about something above us. We remove the indefinite article and say “Only God (and we know which God!) can save us!”

It is not a shifting of our responsibilities onto God, but believing that, in the end, “everything works for the good of those who love God” [and whom God loves!] (Rom 8:28). When dealing with God, the measure is eternity. You can be disappointed in time, but not for eternity. We Christians have a much stronger reason than the psalmist to repeat, in the face of the physical and moral upheavals of the world:

God is our refuge and our strength,
an ever-present help in distress.
Thus, we do not fear, though earth be shaken
and mountains quake to the depths of the sea (Ps 46:2-3).
* * *
But we have not yet taken into consideration the most consoling thing that the Gospel has to tell us about our fears and anxieties! After having exhorted his disciples in a thousand ways not to fear, he did something else. Never before had it been said in the Bible that the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. That he knows them, guides them, takes care of them, defends them: this yes; but not that he gives his life for them. Jesus promised to do it and he did!
He took our fears upon himself. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews says: “In the days of his earthly life he offered prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to God who was able to save him from death” (Heb 5:7). The author alludes to what happened to Jesus on the night of Gethsemane. The Evangelist Mark says that in the Garden of Olives Jesus “Began to be troubled and distressed. Then he said to them, “My soul is sorrowful even to death. Remain here and keep watch”(Mk 14: 33-34). Jesus feels alone, cut off from human society; he asks the apostles to stay close to him, to remain with him.
The same Letter to the Hebrews highlights the consoling message contained for us in this mysterious page of the Gospel:
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin.So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help (Heb 4:15-16).
By taking them upon himself, Jesus also redeemed our fears and anxieties. “By his wounds, we were healed,” the Scripture says of him (Is 53:5-6; 1 Pt 2:24). Jesus is the true “wounded healer” of whom the psychologist spoke, the wounded man who heals the wounds of many. He transformed fear and anguish into opportunities for growth in humanity and in compassion.
But even this does not exhaust what the Gospel has to tell us about our fears. If everything ended here, our consolation would still not be complete. We would have before our eyes a heroic and moving example to follow, but not a hand to sustain us. But here is the second great good news of the Gospel: the pierced healer rose from the dead and said: “I am with you always, until the end of the world” (Mt 28:20). He didn’t just give us the example of how to overcome anguish; he gave us the means to overcome it: his presence and his grace. To Paul who was complaining about his “thorn in the flesh,” the Risen One responds, “My grace is sufficient for you!” (2 Cor 12:9).
The martyrs have made it — and still make it!— a tangible experience. In the Acts of the Carthage martyrs, killed under the Emperor Septimius Severus in the early years of the 3rd century (among the most historically reliable of all the Acts of the martyrs!), we read that one of them, named Felicitas, was pregnant in her eighth month when she was arrested. In prison, she moaned on account of the pangs of childbirth. One of the jailers said to her: “If you complain now, what will you do when you are thrown to the wild beasts in the arena?” And she replied: “Now, I’m the one who suffers; then, someone else will suffer for me!”
We have an example closer to us. In prison and on the eve of being hanged, following the failed coup against Hitler, Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote these verses which are often used as a liturgical hymn:
By kindly powers so wonderfully protected
we wait with confidence, befall what may.
We are with God at night and in the morning
and, just as certainly, on each new day.

* * *

In these meditations, we have forced ourselves not to talk about what we must do for others, but only about what Jesus is and does for us: to identify with the sheep, not with the shepherd. But we must make a small exception on this occasion. Despite all the exhortations of the Gospel, it is not always within our power to free ourselves from fear and anguish; but it may be in our power to free someone else, or help them free themselves.
Pascal wrote in his Memorial: “Jesus is in agony until the end of the world; we must not sleep during all this time.” He continues to be in agony because, in the dimension of eternity into which he has entered, there is no longer a past, but everything is mysteriously present, even his night in Gethsemane. But he is also in agony in another, less mysterious way. He is so in his mystical body: in those who are oppressed by anguish and fear due to loneliness, illness, persecution, exile, and war. We are now the eyes, mouth, and hands of Christ. Let us try to bring comfort to some of them and we will hear the risen Jesus say in our hearts: “You did it to me!” (Mt 25:40). We too, whether pastors or simple believers, must be wounded healers, poor sick people who, nevertheless, can heal others.
I end with an anecdote that many, I think, know, but which helps us to imprint on us the image of Jesus who carries us on his shoulders in the difficult moments of our lives. It’s about a man who sees his whole life in a dream. Here is a brief summary of the story:
I walk on the sand by the sea, leaving behind me, not one but two pairs of footprints. I understand that the second pair are the footsteps of Jesus walking beside me and I am happy. But then, at a certain point, that second pair disappears and only the footprints of two feet can be seen in the sand. This, I understand, happens precisely in correspondence with the darkest and most difficult moments of my life. I lament it and say, “Lord, you left me alone just when I needed you most!”“Son,” Jesus answers me, “the footprints you saw were mine. You were on my shoulders!”

1.Augustine, Sermo340, 1 (PL 38,1483).
2.Augustine, Expos. in Psalmos, 126, 3.
3.Martin Heidegger, Antwort. Martin Heidegger im Gespräch, Gesamtausgabe, vol. 16,Frankfurt 1975.
4.PassioSanctarumPerpetuae et Felicitatis, XV (Ed. C.J. von Beek, Bonn 1938).
5.Trans. John Brownjohn.
6.B. Pascal, Pensées, 553, ed. Br.