Sunday, April 29, 2012 GOOD SHEPHERD SUNDAY

The shepherd has been a favorite biblical image for leadership. I believe it is not only because pasturing sheep was a common occupation in the land of the Bible, but more because the nature of the sheep could bring out the best in the character of a shepherd who takes seriously his occupation. In general, the sheep is a non-aggressive animal. In the face of danger, especially from predators, its natural instinct (except perhaps the ram) is to flee rather than attempt to defend itself and overcome the aggressor. When domesticated, the sheep would, rely completely on its shepherd for protection against any threat to its safety. It is acutely sensitive to the voice of its shepherd and can recognize it even amidst a multiplicity of voices, and will promptly follow its call. Such dependence and trust may easily expose the sheep to abuse and exploitation, if given a shepherd who is without concern for its welfare. And such were the shepherds that the Lord denounced through the prophet Ezekiel: “Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep” (Ez 34:2-3). The abusive shepherds in this text were none other than the last kings of Judah before the kingdom fell into the hands of the Babylonians, and its prominent citizens carried off into exile. At that time the Judean monarchy had degenerated into a self-serving institution that ignored the interests of its subjects, neglecting the weak and exploiting the strong. In the face of this failed leadership, the Lord made this promise: “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak… I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd” (Ez 34:15-16, 23). This prophetic message finds its ultimate fulfillment in the person of Jesus who, in today’s Gospel, declares: “I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (Jn 10:1 1). He does not only recognize the complete dependence and trust of the sheep and aptly respond by giving them the needed care, but he goes all the way and offers his life for them. Like his ancestor David, who, as a shepherd-boy, risked his life in defending his flock against the attack of wild animals (1 Sm 17:34-36), Jesus now teaches by example that an authentic shepherd invests his very self in the care of his flock. Such a shepherd becomes a metaphor for the kind of leadership that is aligned with the will of God—a self-emptying leadership—which alone can mediate God’s love for his people.

In the religious sphere, we have known such shepherds and leaders. Worthy of remembrance is the recently slain shepherd of the Lumad tribes of Arakan Valley, North Cotabato, Fr. Fausto “Pops” Tentorio, an Italian missionary to the Philippines since 1978. His commitment to the defense of his flock and their ancestral lands against penetration by big mining companies; his endeavor to teach the tribal people to articulate their demands for freedom, respect, justice, and brotherhood; his efforts to restore their dignity through education and livelihood programs—exposed him to the hostility of the powerful, whose interests were threatened by his serious work of shepherding. His committed leadership emptied him of everything, even of his very life. He, too, laid down his life for his sheep, in imitation of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. But like the death of Jesus, the death of Fr. Pops and of every good shepherd will not be the final word. Through such acts of self-emptying, God can create something new and beautiful.

— Sr. Bernardita D. Diazon, FSP