Good shepherds lay down their lives for the sheep

(Photo by Miriam Zillies,

By Fr. Ken Forster, OMI, St. Philip Neri Parish, Saskatoon

Fourth Sunday of Easter – Commentary on Acts 2.14a.36b-41; 1 Peter 2.20b-25; John 10:1-10

Religion is a two-sided coin. On the one hand, it comforts us with the security of God’s love and protection. On the other hand, it makes demands of us that are frightening in their consequences.

Jesus, the Good Shepherd, represents a combination of the two aspects of religion. The Shepherd who cares for and comforts his sheep. The Shepherd who knows each by name. But he is the shepherd and the sacrificial victim. “The good shepherd is one who lays down his life for his sheep.”

The hired man thinks primarily of his own welfare and, if he sees a wolf coming, he takes off, leaving the sheep to be attacked and scattered in fear and terror. He cares about his salary and only his salary. Jesus, on the other hand, will not be like a hired person: “I lay down my life for my sheep.” He offers Himself up completely for His people.  He does not count the cost.

The Good Shepherd is close to the sheep. He spends time with them in the field and he feeds them. As Pope Francis says, “He has the smell of the sheep on him.” That love is compared to the deep mutual relationship that exists between Jesus and his Father. “My own know me just as the Father knows me.” The Good Shepherd knows his sheep. He calls them each by name. They listen. They wait for the timbre of his voice. The shepherd goes ahead of the sheep and calls them. He does not push or herd them.

The Fourth Sunday of Easter, May 3, 2020, was “Vocations Sunday”. On this day we are especially asked to pray that the Church may be provided with the leaders needed to do its work of spreading the Gospel. While we may earnestly pray that our Church be supplied with the leaders it needs, there can be a tendency among us to pray that others may answer that call. We do not see ourselves as included. We may pray earnestly for more young people to offer themselves as priests and religious but clearly exclude our own children.

Vocation means that God is calling me and has a plan for my life.  It is his plan for my life that will allow me to bless the world with my life and find meaning for myself. I can’t just float through life. I must choose the goal and purpose of my life. Secondly, my goal must respond to my Vocation.

We may have chosen many different paths, but we find ourselves today living as spouses, parents, teachers, doctors, civil servants, running a business, salespersons… or whatever. But can we transform what is perhaps now merely a job, the act of a hireling, into a life of service? Tertullian is credited as saying, “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the church.”

I believe the deaths and everyday danger to our front line workers must be the seed that transforms our Canadian society.

We have come to a new understanding of the service of frontline workers through this pandemic. We recognize that truly theirs is a vocation, an answer to the call of God. Why? Because we see them laying down their lives for others. They are held as heroes. People clap and bang pots and pans, put on live concerts of appreciation. Why? Front line workers are placing their lives at risk, risk of contracting the illness themselves, risk of spreading it to their families and those they love, risk of death. We lift them up because we see them as beautiful human beings living life as it should be lived for others.

We have been brought to gratitude for their ministry of service, but what of all other labor? Have we not also found a depth of compassion and decisive action on the part of some of our politicians, as we try to save lives? Have you been surprised, as I have, by the depth of care of some? Have we come to appreciate the daily service of care-givers who treat our parents with respect and dignity before and during the pandemic? Have we now understood, in their absence, the role of teachers as not just sharing knowledge with our children but helping our children to learn socializing skills and blossoming as confident individuals? I know we look anew at our tellers at supermarkets, as really those who with a kind word and smile are assisting us to have what we need to live.

Surely we have our basic vocation to live as married, single, or celibate priests or religious, but firstly every human being, Christian or not, has a vocation to follow the one who shepherds our conscience, teaching us that our life is at the service of one another. “I have come to serve, not to be served.” A call from God is a call to serve, to lay down one life for the other.

Where is God calling me to make my own unique contribution based on the particular talents God has given me? If every single person were to answer that question sincerely and to act upon it, I am confident that our Church would have all the leadership it needs, for we would be fishing from a pool of selfless servants.

What is so strange about giving your life for something? We all do. Each of us will spend our life, give it away. Every day our lives are being drained from us. The question we all need to answer at the end is, “Did I give my life for something that really mattered?” Or am I merely a hireling chasing after material things and personal comforts? Whatever our skills or employment, that is our site of joyful, generous service.

To the question, “Who are you?”, it is not enough to say “I am a doctor,” “I am a teacher,” “I am stewardess,” “I am a priest,” “I am a home-maker,” “I am a construction worker.” Rather, I must be able to say that “I am joyful and fulfilled in my service as I see this as a way I can help others and bring joy to their lives, speak truth, love, justice, freedom and bless with respect  everyone touched by me.”

Love says, “The real value in life is to receive, not to grab and possess.” All that you have and all that you are is a gift from the good God. You can open your hands and let God pour into them whatever you really need, and if you keep them open, you can easily let what you have pass to others, others who are in need. Can I say, “I have come that ‘you’ may have life and have it more abundantly?”

Don’t be anxious about your vocation. Rather give your life in generous service. Be patient. Don’t grab life. If you have a generous martyr’s heart you will have the ears to hear the voice of the shepherd who leads you.


Video Message prepared for the Vocation Sunday 2020 from OMI Lacombe Canada province: