There’s an old cliche that says, “To know me is to love me.” Most of us believe if other people really knew us, they couldn’t help but love us. In today’s gospel on this Good Shepherd Sunday, Jesus makes the same connection – and helps us find both. His shepherd imagery may be lost on us 21st-century Christians, but the truth remains. Pope Francis used the image five years ago when he counseled his priests to “be shepherds with the smell of the sheep.”
The shepherd Jesus models himself after was common in first century Palestine. Born to his task, a shepherd grew into his calling by being a shepherd. It was a 24/7 vocation, providing protection and care for his flock as it wandered the Judean landscape, searching for grass and water, and avoiding the attack of wolves and thieves. The sheep became the shepherd’s friends and he, literally, knew them by the name he gave each. The shepherd became the symbol of constant vigilance, fearless courage and patient love.
This “knowledge” between shepherd and sheep – and knowledge for the first-century Israelites – was not the head knowledge of Greek philosophers. It was a heart knowledge. For the Judeans, to know was to experience. To know was to feel for and with the other. To know was to accept the other. And so we hear Jesus cite not only the mutual knowing of he and his sheep. He also speaks of that same mutual relationship with his Father. Knowing and love grow together; they mutually enrich each other. This knowing-loving relationship elicits a total surrender of life to and for the one he loves. This Good Shepherd will lay down his very life to protect his sheep from those who wish to steal them or do them harm. And he will call other sheep who will hear in his voice an attractiveness, a goodness worthy of following. Then this Good Shepherd will know the fulfillment of his only desire, and the Father’s, too: there will be one flock.
This heart knowledge is what Peter, in the first reading, desires for all of Israel, when they see the healing done “in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean.” It is this heart knowledge – this mutual knowing-loving – that John confirms for his readers in today’s second reading. We are God’s children now; the more we know God, the more we will be like the One we love.
We belong to our Good Shepherd who knows us by heart, and loves us. Dare we say the same of Him?
— Mary Flick, CSJ