Every year on the 4th Sunday of Easter, I would be preaching about the “good shepherd”. Notice the small letters “g” and “s”. It is not the “Good Shepherd” but “good shepherd”. It is a story about an ordinary “good shepherd” which I heard for the first time from a dear Mill Hill priest, the late Rev. Fr. Terry Burke. Fr. Terry ‘s real name was Terence Laurence Burke. He was a Briton, to be exact, born in Barnes, South London. I came to know Fr. Terry back in 1997 when I was in my first year as a seminarian in St. Peter’s College, Kuching-Sarawak. I learned later on that he had spent most of his time doing missionary works in Sarawak and Bali, Indonesia. Fr. Terry had a warm personality that would made people, even meeting him for the first time, feel as if they have known him for years. But what captivated me the most about him (and I believe others too) was his eloquence in preaching. In fact, the story of the “good shepherd” which I am going to share here was one of his many amazing homilies.
The icon of the Good Shepherd portrays Christ with a lamb on his shoulders and a shepherd’s staff in the crook of his arm. The image of Christ as Good Shepherd is deeply rooted in the Gospels: “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). The image of God as a shepherd can be seen throughout the Old Testament in the Psalms: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” (Psalm 23:1) and in the words of the prophets: “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom.” (Isaiah 40:11). The idea of Jesus the Messiah as a shepherd also calls to mind King David who was taken from the sheepfold to care for the twelve tribes of Israel. However, it also adopted imagery for the ordinary shepherd in an ancient Middle Eastern context of shepherding.
Shepherds in Israel raised the sheep not so much for the meat but often for wool and milk. Like our own domesticated cats and dogs, the sheep were then treated like pets, each one even had its name. Since dogs were (and still are) considered unclean, the shepherds do not use dogs to herd the sheep, but they herd the sheep themselves. Shepherd would always carry a “unique-shaped” crook with them. It has a curved top like a hook and a sharp bottom end. There are three reasons for the crook:  to protect themselves from the predators such as wolves,  to support themselves when climbing stiff cliffs,  to use in shepherding the sheep. I would not bother explaining reasons no. 1 and no. 2 since these two are quite straightforward. Let’s just focus on reason no. 3.
Sheep are generally meek and obedient to the shepherd. However, once in a while, there would always be naughty lambs trying to escape from the flocks. When that happened, the shepherd would use the top end of his crook to pull the animals back to the herds. But sometimes, there would be one or two stubborn sheep. The shepherd would then use the bottom sharp end of his crook to poke on those naughtier sheep. It usually worked. However, once in a blue moon, there would be an extremely naughty sheep that no matter how many times it had been hooked and poked, the sheep was still persistent to escape the flock. What would the shepherd do?
He would deliberately break its leg. It may sound cruel but the next thing the shepherd would do would leave you speechless. He would bind up the broken leg, carry the sheep upon his shoulders and hand feed the sheep. In this way the sheep learned dependence and trust in the shepherd and learned to respond to his voice. By the time its leg healed, the sheep would never again attempt to escape. Instead, it would be following the shepherd everywhere. It had become the shepherd’s pet.
The image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is based on this ancient “deed of shepherd” to illustrate how “Good” he is indeed. Sometimes, there are unpleasant situations we encounter in life that no matter how we try to rationalise, we will still be unable to understand. It may be in the forms of rejections, betrayals, failures, financial problems and tragedies. It could also be the COVID19 pandemic. No matter what form it may be, we must not lose hope because Jesus the Good Shepherd is with us. He never abandons us. He would carry us through all trials.
The Good Shepherd Sunday is also a World Day of Prayer for Vocation. It is a Sunday dedicated to pray for more vocations to the priesthood and religious life. His Holiness has written a beautiful message in conjunction with this liturgical celebration. Pope Francis, in his letter, asks the Church to continue promoting vocations this Sunday in particular, but also in the ordinary pastoral life of our communities. Please feel free to google the Pope’s full message.
I would like to end my reflection for the 4th Sunday of Easter with a special announcement. Seminarian, Terrance Thaddeus who has been with us since beginning of this year has completed his 4 months pastoral immersion in our parish. He will be leaving us for good on 13 May 2020 (Wednesday) to spend a two-week break with his parents in Papar before continuing his final semester at St. Peter’s College, Kuching. I am thankful to Seminarian Terrance for being with us in this parish. He has been a great help to us in one way or another. Let us continue to pray that he will preserve in his vocation to the diocesan priesthood.
Fr. Wilfred Atin