One of the earliest images of Jesus found in the catacombs of Rome is a drawing of a young, beardless shepherd in the midst of the flock. Around are verdant pastures and still waters, as in the psalm. In John’s Gospel, Jesus calls himself “the Good Shepherd” (Jo. 10:11), and the early Christians took it to heart. Even for urban churchgoers, the bucolic image of the shepherd had appeal. In the context of deadly persecution the shepherd’s rod and staff were a com-fort, in the sense of fortification. If you are walking in the valley of the shadow of death, as those early worshippers were, you want the shepherd close at hand.
There’s more here, however, than the Good Shepherd who’s stronger than death. There’s also the voice of the shepherd which we are bound to hear. Think again about our Gospel reading. The sheep are in the fold during the night. In the early morning, before the full light, the sheep and the gatekeeper have to rely on distinguishing the voice of the shepherd. “The sheep follow him,” it says, “because they know his voice” (Jo. 10:4).
The strong contrast here is with “the voice of strangers” (Jo. 10:5). “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit” (Jo. 10:1). If the sheep follow the voice of strangers they are likely to discover that the voice doesn’t belong to the shepherd but to someone more sinister. “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy” (Jo. 10:9). “Death is their shepherd” (Ps. 49:14), the Psalmist says. The flock becomes a target, and the voice of strangers leads the flock to destruction.
In his day, the prophet Ezekiel accused the leaders of Israel of being shepherds who failed to feed the flock, and instead fed on the flock. “You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them” (Ezek. 34:4). With that kind of shepherd you hardly need enemies.
Ezekiel observed the flock of Israel being scattered, and delivered to the People the word that God himself would dispense with useless shepherds, and take up the pastoral staff himself. God would be their shepherd. No longer would they be subject to thieves and bandits, to the not so tender mercies of deadly shepherds. “I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on the day of clouds and thick darkness” (Ezek. 34:12). It’s in this contrasting sense, and with Ezekiel’s words in mind, that Jesus calls himself the good shepherd, whose voice the flock recognizes.
What’s it like to be duped by the voice of strangers? There are so many misleading voices at work in the world that there are abundant suspects. Propaganda; fake news; Russian “trolls”: take your pick. The voices of misinformation are legion. The people who are trying to get your social security number through text messages, and the folks who want you to send them your bank account information so they can send you money are straight up thieves and robbers, but some voices of strangers are harder to figure out. A good rule of thumb is that if the voice makes you anxious and fearful, it probably isn’t the voice of the shepherd.
For the good shepherd comes, as Jesus says in our Gospel today, so “that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jo. 10:10). This is why the image in the catacombs shows the shepherd leading the flock among the green pastures and the still waters. The key to discerning the voice of Jesus amongst the discordant voices that mislead and misdirect is to listen for him calling us by name. He knows us better than we know ourselves, so the voice of the shepherd will connect with us in a different way.
It’s the voice of the one who is gathering the flock, not scattering it. Dispersal and polarization are the way to destruction, but the good shepherd leads us to life. This is the gift of community, the truth that we can only discover together. This truth brings us to the altar rail so that we can discover that together we are the Body of Christ, through receiving the sacrament of his Body and Blood. This truth brings us to proclaim our faith and renew our baptismal vows, by which we were first brought into the community of faith. Listen carefully, and hear Jesus calling each of us by name.