Fourth Sunday of Easter

An American accountant visiting the Holy Land was surprised to see shepherds grazing their flocks without any fences just as they did two thousand years ago. He stopped to talk with one of them and offered him a wager: “If I tell you how many sheep you have will you give me one of them? And if I’m wrong by more than one or two, I’ll give you $300.” The shepherd liked to gamble so he agreed. The accountant mentally divided the sheep into groups, quickly added them up and said, “You have 94 sheep.” Surprised, the shepherd nodded his head, “Yup, that’s right. I guess you win.” The American grabbed the one nearest him and started to walk away. The shepherd stared at him and said, “Wait a minute. If I guess your occupation will you give it back to me?” Being fair minded the man agreed. The shepherd said, “I think you’re a government accountant who sits behind a desk all day without any experience of animals.” Now it was the American’s turn to be surprised. “Yes, that’s right,” he said, “but how did you know?” The shepherd replied, “If you put down my dog I’ll tell you.”

Sheep haven’t changed in two thousand years. But shepherds have changed a lot. In the time of Jesus, they were regarded as thieves.  Shepherds were mean and dirty. They were forbidden by Jewish law from being witnesses in a trial because they were such notorious liars. When Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd,” it was an oxymoron, a combination of words with opposite meanings, like bitter-sweet, deafening-silence, authentic-reproduction. It was like saying I am a good devil.  In Greek the contrast is even stronger. The Greek New Testament has three words for good: agathos, chrestos, and kallos. Agathos means moral goodness, sinlessness, as when Jesus said, “Only One is good,” (Mt 19:17). Chrestos means goodness that is kind, helpful and friendly, as when Jesus said, “God is good even to the ungrateful and selfish,” (Lk 6:35). Kallos means goodness that is also beautiful, full of loveliness. We call beautiful handwriting “calligraphy,” kallos graphia. That is the word used for the good shepherd. Jesus is not only good, he is ravishingly beautiful because he is divine and willingly laid down his life to save us.

Once there was a nineteen-year-old British soldier who was so badly wounded in the Second World War that both his legs had to be amputated. He was a strikingly handsome lad, with blue eyes as bright as the sky, and a smile that won the hearts of all the girls who saw him. The surgeon was grieved that this handsome lad would be crippled for the rest of his life. When the boy opened his eyes after the operation the surgeon told him: “I am deeply distressed because you have lost both your legs.” The boy closed his eyes for a moment and then replied, “Doctor, I did not lose them, I laid them down for the sake of our people.” The beauty of this boy’s heart was even greater than the beauty of his body. Jesus is the good and most beautiful shepherd who willingly laid down his life for us.

Many images of Christ on the cross capture the horror of crucifixion. Other images look past the physical suffering and try to capture the kallos, the beautiful goodness of Jesus. On New Melleray’s processional cross, Christ is shining gold. He is beautiful, not sinking downward by the pull of gravity, with his head hanging toward the earth, but straining upward away from the cross, already ascending to Father in heaven, only temporarily held back by the nails in his hands and feet.

Jesus said, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”  That’s crazy. Shepherds don’t lay down their lives to save flea-infested, dirty, fecal plastered sheep. Human life is far more precious than a few sheep. Even worse, Jesus used the divine name by saying “I AM” making it his own name. Jesus is saying, “Yahweh lays down his life.”  God dies for his sheep.  This was too much. People said, “He has a demon and is out of his mind. Why listen to him?” (Jn. 10:20).

Why do we listen to him? Because we are the muddy, wayward, sinful sheep. We haven’t changed in two thousand years. A grade school teacher quizzed her young class in arithmetic. She asked, “If there are twelve sheep in a pasture and three of them go through a hole in the fence, how many will be left?” A girl quickly raised her hand and said, “None.” A ripple of giggles swept through the classroom. The teacher called on a boy who said, “There would be nine left.” The girl retorted, “No, there wouldn’t!” The boy, like a young accountant, said, “Yes, there would!” The teacher intervened and asked the girl why none would be left. Speaking from experience she replied, “Because if three sheep get through a hole in the fence they’ll all go through it.”  Who will we follow? The wayward sheep? Or, Jesus who calls us to union with God?