The more shocking the crime the more it will help us to grasp the full force of God’s love and the true meaning of mercy.
The hired man on hearing sentence pronounced is likely to add; “and I hope they throw away the key!”
The good shepherd on the other hand stands before the judge and doesn’t plead for leniency or mitigation but rather offers himself – his life – to take the place of the guilty prisoner and serve the time on his behalf.
The hired man simply runs away. The good shepherd lays down his life.
This image also helps to explain the difference between our understanding of mercy and God’s understanding.
Our understanding is little more than mitigation, leniency, a lighter sentence whereas Gods understanding is paying the full price on behalf of another.
The pain and the price of injustice, of mercy, do not disappear magically, rather it is always being absorbed in human flesh and ultimately in the Godhead – there are no short-cuts.
So what do you think; are you more hired man or good shepherd? I think I’m more hired man!
Finally, the image helps to explain the difference between a job and a vocation.
He says he’s the gate of the sheepfold. All others who have come are thieves and brigands.
What is this sheepfold and who are these thieves and brigands?
The very idea of a sheepfold suggests that we do not follow Jesus as individuals in isolation – there’s always Jesus Christ (the shepherd) and the Church (the sheepfold).
The sheepfold is the Church but it’s the Church merging into the kingdom of God. The Church is the gathering of those who’ve entered into the life of God through Jesus – it’s this passing through Jesus that produces the Church.
Jesus describes people who enter in this way as “safe” going “freely in and out” (of the life of God), “sure of finding pasture” – powerfully descriptive words.
There are other people who’ve entered the Church but without entering the life of God. They’re just going through the motions. These are the thieves and brigands – an accusation that’s directed in the first place at the religious leaders of his day.
Catholics, but particularly bishops and priests who maintain the mere external practice of religion without true conversion of heart are thieves and brigands. They usurp the things of God becoming obstacles rather than stepping stones to God. Pope Francis repeatedly warns about the threat such people pose within the Church.
But this problem is not confined to priests and bishops. Few are immune to the trappings of religion without the appropriate conversion of heart.
Such ‘Catholics’ find life in the Church boring. They’re highly visible at the one-off events, First Communions, Confirmations, there’s an obvious disconnect which manifests itself in distraction. There’s little sense of the sacred, little sense of the presence of the Totally Other. In their distraction they “steal and kill and destroy” the sacred.
Finally, allow me to present you with the ultimate test of the Christian; are you a good shepherd prepared to lay down your life for the flock (the Church, God’s people) or are you a hired hand who runs away when the wolf attacks?
The difference, I think, is the gate we’ve used to enter the sheepfold. Have we really come in through Jesus?