In order to appreciate fully the import of this beautiful gospel passage, we need to pay close attention to the context. Earlier in chapter ten, Jesus had called himself the good shepherd and then defined a good shepherd as one who loves his sheep and is prepared to die for them. Sheep herding, contrary to some popular conceptions, is a hard and lonely life, but the true shepherd loves his work and gladly accepts many sacrifices in order to keep his flock safe and sound.
When Jesus says, therefore, that “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me,” he is assuming that the sheep already know how completely he has earned their trust. The sheep hear his distinctive call and follow him, not just because he is an authority figure in their lives, but because he has been such a good shepherd to them.
This example is, of course, only a metaphor for us Christians who belong to the spiritual flock of Jesus. We are assumed to have experienced his love and to know him so well that we implicitly trust his message as well as his promise of eternal life.
To belong to the spiritual flock of Jesus is to hear his voice. This means much more than simply reading or hearing about him. Such information is always helpful, but the decisive moment comes when we go beyond external testimony and begin to discover Jesus at the center of our lives in a profoundly intuitive and trusting manner.
In the analogy that Jesus uses, we can be sure that the sheep who hear their shepherd’s call do not go through some “rational” process before deciding to respond. On the contrary, there is, ever so gradually, an instinctive and whole-hearted recognition of the call and a total trust in the concern and devotion of the one who has already demonstrated his love and care for them.
In the case of us Christians, this is a spiritual bond that can be stronger than death. As Jesus tells us, nothing and no “one can take them out of my hand.” The only precondition on our part is that we continue to trust the “way of Jesus,” which means that we use our freedom and strength to be a loving, caring presence in our world. We can do this most effectively in the context of a supportive community and with the nourishment of the Eucharist.
When Jesus concludes by making the dramatic claim that “the Father and I are one,” he is not just assuring us of his equal status in the Trinity of divine Persons. Rather, he is confirming that the life that he offers to us is the same life that he shares with the Father. This is made clear when he says, in the context of the Eucharist, “Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me” (6: 57). It is divine and unending life that the good shepherd wants for us and we can be sure of having that life if we pass on to others the same selfless love that he has shown to us.
Demetrius R. Dumm, O.S.B.