The Epistle St. Peter 2.19
This is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully. For what glory is it if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? But if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God. For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps: who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously: who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed. For ye were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.
Today, the second Sunday after Easter, is also known as Good Shepherd Sunday, and having just heard the Gospel lesson you can probably figure out why. The analogy in this parable is rather obvious. But in St. Peter’s Epistle we are given the analogy of Shepherd and sheep as well; in words at once the same, and yet slightly different from those we find in the Gospel.
In his Gospel, St. John quotes Christ speaking about a “hireling”, meaning someone whom the shepherd has employed to guard the flock in his place. In modern terms, we might think of this “hireling” as a “temporary laborer”. And based on my experiences in my former secular occupation, I can tell you a few things about “temporary laborers”.
First of all, many, if not most, start off meaning to do well. They are dedicated, they try very hard to do a good job; and in most cases, they do a good job. But for some, there is one significant difference; they have no vested interest in the success of their employer.
You see, when a company hires a temporary laborer to perform some task, they expect that that person will do the job correctly; but the ultimate responsibility for the completion of that task still resides with the employer. Regardless of whether the temp succeeds or fails, his or her supervisor will be held responsible and either gets the credit, or takes the blame. The temp employee will simply move on to the next job or the next company. Therefore, there’s little incentive for the temp to risk his/her neck if the job starts to get too tough.
This is similar to the situation of the “hireling” that Jesus refers to. This “hireling” has been given the task of watching over the flock; but the task becomes too menial or too hard; and since they feel no ultimate responsibility for the safety of the flock, they neglect their duties and the sheep are left to wander aimlessly on their own; or worse, they are left open to attack.
St. Peter seems to pick up on this theme by pointing out that we are, in fact, those sheep; sheep who have been under the care of “hirelings”, and who have wandered away from the flock. But, whereas a flock abandoned by a “temp employee”, often suffers greatly, we sheep are different.
You see, when a temporary laborer fails in their duties, it is up to the supervisor to make sure that things are put right. In Our Lord’s time on earth, this meant that it was up to the shepherd to save the flock from the failings of the hireling. And to do this, the shepherd relied on one key thing; the sheep of the flock knew his voice.
The job of a shepherd involved more than just herding a bunch of sheep around sparse grazing lands. It required the shepherd to become personally involved with the flock; to know the characteristics and behaviors of its various members. It meant that the shepherd had to be very familiar with the sheep, and that the sheep had to become familiar with him; to the point where they would recognize him by his voice alone, and come to him when he called. And so, when a hireling failed all the shepherd needed to do was call the sheep, and they would return to him.
To emphasize this point, St. Peter uses two of the great names for God; “the shepherd and bishop of our souls”. His use of these titles is in keeping with the whole of Jewish Scripture; Psalm 23, “the Lord is my Shepherd”; Isaiah, 40, “He will feed his flock like a shepherd: he will gather the lambs in his bosom”.
Further, this connects us with some of the prophecies about Christ himself, Ezekiel, 34, “and I will set up over them one shepherd; he shall feed them, and be their shepherd”. THIS is the title that Christ took for himself when he said that he is “the Good Shepherd”.
And unlike that temporary laborer, the hireling, the Good Shepherd very much has a vested interest in the success of the flock. They are his own. He knows them intimately. He knows their characteristics, their behaviors, their personalities, their needs. He knows when they have gone astray. He knows when they are under attack. And, if they have listened to him, they will know his voice when he calls them to return.
And unlike that temporary laborer, the bishop also has a vested interest in the success of the flock. By using the word “bishop”, or in some translations, “guardian”, the implication that St. Peter asserts is that the responsibility for the safety of the flock has been passed on from Christ himself to his Apostles and their successors in the Catholic Church. These men are not mere hirelings, but rather they too are shepherds; entrusted with the duty of knowing their sheep, and making their voice known to them.
And as the sheep of God’s flock, it is our job to heed their call. But, as we know all to well, there are many who claim to be shepherds whose call is false. Perhaps it is instead the call of that hireling who, having found some “safe” refuge in society, appeals to us to join them even as they neglect their duties. Perhaps it is our own tendency to stray from the flock, in search of something better, something easier, something more comfortable. Perhaps it is the call of Satan himself, telling us that God’s Way is impractical, untenable, unfair.
This is not the voice of God, or of His true Bishops. This is not the voice of the Good Shepherd. The voice of the Good Shepherd does not call us into modern innovation or heresy, but rather it calls us back to God. Progress in the flock was not measured by how many sheep went off to find some new and different path, but rather by how the sheep heeded the call of the shepherd and returned to him. Likewise, progress in the Church will not be measured by the number of different “paths” we will accept in the name of “inclusiveness”, but rather by our insistence on heeding the call of our true Shepherds; the call that will always lead us back to God.
During this Easter season, as we celebrate the Glorious Resurrection of Christ the Good Shepherd, let us rededicate ourselves to knowing him; so that we may always recognize his voice, and take heed when he calls to us. Further, let us reach out to those members of his flock who have strayed and continue to stray; so that they too may recognize his voice and return to his Church. In doing so, let us remind our fellow sheep that there is only one voice by which Our Good Shepherd may be known; the voice of he who lay down his life for his flock, Jesus Christ, Our Lord.
For ye were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.