Acts 13:14, 43-52
Revelation 7:9, 14b-17
One of the favorite images of God we possess is of the Good Shepherd. We know that underlying this image is a truth that is a source of faith. The importance of sheep in the life of the Hebrew people can not be underestimated. Sheep are most mentioned animal in the Bible. They are referenced over four hundred times. The image of the shepherd is also mentioned over one hundred times. The qualities of sheep make them a very apt metaphor for our spiritual realities. The qualities of a shepherd make it a very apt metaphor for God.
Sheep survive on a minimum of water and grass. They are totally dependent upon the shepherd for protection, grazing, watering, and shelter. They are singularly unintelligent. They need to be led to "still waters" otherwise they could die of thirst even near running waters. They get lost very easily. So frequently a goat is introduced into a herd, who will lead the way for them.
Ironically, the shepherds though critical for Israel survival were often considered outcasts, and unworthy of the least respect. But it was shepherds who welcomed Jesus at Bethlehem. It is the image of the shepherd Jesus himself chose as a metaphor for his Messiahship. In fact, in spite of the lowly regard society had for shepherds the greatest leaders of Israel were shepherds: Abraham, Isaac, Moses, David and Amos. Like sheep, Israel was completely depend on God, the Good Shepherd for protection, food, water, and shelter while they trekked through the Sinai desert.
In today’s scriptures Jesus is celebrating the Feast of the Dedication of the Temple, or Hanukkah. It is the feast that celebrated the victory of the Maccabaeus over the Syrian occupation. It is such an important feast it lasted eight days. It is the only place in John’s Gospel where he is asked directly if he was the Messiah. He says that He is and God has given him sheep to care for and no one can take them away. No one can frustrate Jesus purpose which is eternal life for those who believe.
Fr. Kenneth O’Malley, C.P. is the archivist at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.