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Fourth Sunday of Easter (Good Shepherd Sunday)
during the coronavirus pandemic
May 3, 2020

Click here to watch the video of Father Ryan's homily
(homily begins at 29:15)

    I read the parable of the Good Shepherd quite differently this year than the way I’ve read it in past years. No surprise there. In this year that is utterly unlike any other, how could I possibly read it the same?

     The parable is familiar enough. Jesus says the good shepherd is the one who enters the sheepfold through the gate. In other the words, the good shepherd is out in the open -honest, trustworthy, forthright. There’s nothing sneaky or subversive about him. He is a known quantity and he knows his way around. He enters through the gate, and the one who tends the gate of the sheepfold readily opens the gate for him. Thieves and robbers, on the other hand, are just the opposite: they are sneaky and subversive. The only way they can gain entry into the sheepfold is to climb in stealthily, by dark of night.  There is no light in them. Only darkness.

     Jesus then goes on to say that the good shepherd knows the sheep so well that he has a name for each of them and calls each of them by name. And there’s something tender and beautiful about that. So strong is his relationship with them, that when it’s time to go out to pasture, the sheep readily follow him from the safety of the sheepfold out into the open. That’s a way of saying that they entrust their lives to him. They will go where he goes.

     And it’s a two-way street. The good shepherd trusts them.  Because of his caring relationship with them, the good shepherd leads the sheep by walking ahead of them, confident that they will follow. They would never follow a stranger in that way – in fact, they would flee from the stranger because they don’t know the stranger’s voice. It’s foreign to them.

     In telling the parable, Jesus was giving his disciples a deeper understanding of who he was. And it’s worth noting just  where evangelist placed the parable in his gospel. Very intentionally he placed it right between the story of the healing of the man born blind and the raising of Lazarus – as if to say, here is the Good Shepherd in action!
 But now, let’s put this parable into the context of today because the gospels only really come to life when we read them in the moment. So, in the midst of dealing with terrible pandemic, we might ask who are the good shepherds at this difficult moment.
For me, parents are among the first who come to mind. Parents, like the Good Shepherd, name their children and lovingly call their children by name, and like the Good Shepherd, they lay down their lives for the children. Literally. Parents work endlessly and sacrifice greatly to build a trusting, loving relationship with their children, allowing them to become the unique, gifted individual each of them is. Parents are good shepherds in every sense of the word!

     And I’m not naïve: I know that parent-child relationships can be strained at times - especially during days like these when the schools are shuttered and everyone is at home, living at close-quarters. Heavens! Even in the best of times when there are a lot of comings and goings, parents and kids can get on each other’s nerves and drive each other crazy. That’s life, and it has to be multiplied exponentially during difficult days like these. But, at best, love wins out, and who is more loving than a good and loving parent? And who returns love more than a child who is loved? So, yes, you parents are good shepherds.

     And then, I think of all the people in the medical world who, day after day, are putting themselves in harm’s way so that they can be present to those who need to be tested for the virus, those who have tested positive, and those who are so ill with the virus that they require hospitalization and intensive care.  All of these medical people – doctors, nurses, medical technicians, support staff – are not only heroes, they’re good shepherds. Each day, as they report to work, they are entering ‘the sheepfold’ by the gate so they can serve the sick and the suffering.  And, like the good shepherd, they know what they’re about: they’ve done their homework, they use their knowledge and skills to bring gifts of healing, and they bring those gifts in abundance. And, like the good shepherd, they develop loving and caring relationships with those they serve, calling them by name, responding to their every need – physical, emotional, even spiritual. Good shepherds they surely are!

     And then, I can’t speak of good shepherds without mentioning elected officials who are doing their utmost to provide leadership during these exceedingly difficult days. Theirs is a very lonely role as they make decisions for the well-being of the people, decisions based on the best science available, decisions rooted in common sense, decisions that are for the common good. It would be easier for them, no doubt, to play the role of the hireling in the parable, putting their own personal interests, their own personal gain, their own personal agenda ahead of the common good – in the process, of course, confusing people by giving out conflicting messages and raising false hopes. We should pray for leaders who resist those temptations, leaders who are steady at the helm, who put the interests of others ahead of their own and who are willing to pay the price for doing so. They, too, are good shepherds.

     I could extend this list of today’s good shepherds, but maybe that’s a little homework you can do as you reflect on this parable of Jesus and see how it lives in this moment, lives in the people around you. Good shepherds are all around us these days: they’re in our neighborhood, at the Zoom meetings, at the grocery store, the pharmacy, the takeout restaurant – maybe even at the liquor store!

     My friends, often on this particular Sunday when we hear homilies about the Good Shepherd, we hear about people like me who, of course, are called to shepherd the flock of Christ. That’s all well and good but it’s way too limiting. And this year above all – this extraordinary year – I thought it would be important to expand our notion of who the shepherds are and to hold up those who at this moment are doing extraordinary things to lead the flocks entrusted to them.  As we continue our celebration this morning, let us give thanks to God for them and ask God to give them wisdom, courage, and strength as they – in one way or another – lay down their lives for the flock.

Father Michael G. Ryan





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