Commentary on the Readings
4th Sunday of Easter – Year B – April 22, 2018
The Epiphany of God—the Shepherd who gives life
No wonder that, even in times of religious crisis, the majority of people continue to believe in God. However, in verifying the identity of this God, we often notice that he is quite different from the one Jesus revealed. He is a God who adapts to the justice of man. He rewards and punishes according to merits, welcomes the worship, bestows blessings to his devotees, forbids adultery. He approves the accumulation of assets and their free management. In fact, at times, he becomes a business associate. He is a God who allows killing in self-defense and, above all, he is infinitely great, all-powerful, able to gain respect.
This reasonable God found shelter also in some Catholic catechisms and is easy to accept.
But one day, in Jesus, the true God has made himself known to people completely different. He was in company with sinners and stayed with the excluded. He allowed people to spit in his face without reacting. He loved those who nailed him to a cross; he was neither omnipotent nor infinite. In the face of this weak, unable to defend themselves God, the faith of all staggered. Peter, when he vowed not knowing him (Mk 14:71), spoke—I think—in the name of the great majority of Christians.
Believing in a God like this is so difficult: it means to pin one’s glory on making oneself humble or small for love.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“I’ll have to go through dark valleys, but I do not fear. I trust the shepherd who guides me.”
Here is Peter’s new discourse. It is the third of the eight that are attributed to him in the book of Acts. It was delivered shortly after what has been proposed last Sunday.
It is put in the same context: Peter and John had cured a cripple from birth at the door, called “beautiful”, of the temple. They said to the amazed people: “The faith that comes through Jesus has given him wholeness in the presence of all of you” (Acts 3:16). They were still talking when the leaders came, “greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people and proclaiming that resurrection from the dead had been proved in the case of Jesus. They arrested them and put them in custody. The next day they brought them to court to question them: ‘How did you do this? Whose name did you use?’” (Acts 4:1-7).
The reading begins with Peter’s answer to the question that the leaders of the people have asked him. The healing—he said—was made “through the name of Jesus. You had him crucified, but God raised from the dead” (vv. 8-10).
At the center of the discourse (v. 11) the quotation of the Psalm is placed: “The stone rejected by the builders has become the cornerstone” (Ps 118:22). Peter interprets it as a parable of what happened to Jesus. He again effectively contrasts the work of men to God’s action. He compares the members of the Sanhedrin to builders who, finding in their hands a solid rock, but was not part of their plans, fearing that it would destabilize their whole “building”, discarded and threw it away. God, instead, considered it extremely valuable. He went to retrieve it and has placed it as the foundation of his new building.
The stone is Jesus. With the novelty of his message, he upset the established order, put in danger, “the holy place and nation” (Jn 11:48). It was not acceptable that he, a lay person, without authority, continued to pose a threat to the religious institution.
Looking at colleagues, Caiaphas, with a lot of logic, concluded, “Do you see clearly what you need? It is better to have one man die for the people than to let the whole nation be destroyed” (Jn 11:49).
God thought differently from those who claimed the right to represent and speak on his behalf on earth. For God, Jesus was the faithful servant and, therefore, on Easter day he went to take him back from the tomb, glorified him and put him as foundation of the new temple.
Concluding his discourse (v. 12), Peter states that there is no salvation in anyone else. Jesus is the only savior. Only the one who builds his life on him and on his word can be sure to build on a solid foundation. He needs not fear that the advent of new doctrines, new religions, new ideologies, new humanisms, new scientific discoveries may one day reveal some fragility.
The life of God that the Christian receives in baptism is a mysterious spiritual reality. Speaking to Nicodemus, Jesus compared it to the “wind”. No one knows where it comes from nor where it goes. It exists and its presence does not go unnoticed because it produces unequivocal effects that everyone can see, but it is not visible to the eye (Jn 3:8).
The passage’s first statement being proposed today is a reminder of the free gift of divine life. The word of God is always effective; if he calls someone his son, this person will actually become one.
In biblical language, sonship implies the participation in the life of him from whom one is generated. “Adam—the Genesis recalls—became father of a son born in his own likeness, in his own image and he named him Seth” (Gen 5:3). Seth, who had received life from Adam, was like his father, bore the etched features. So the Christian is, in the world, a presence of the divine and, like any son, reproduces the likeness of the Father. This is why one who does not know God cannot even know those generated by God (v. 1). It is not therefore surprising that the Christian is not understood.
The present condition is not yet final. A veil, by the fact that we still live in this world, blocks our awareness of who we really are. But one day the veil will be lifted and we will see God as he is, then we will know that we shall be like him (v. 2).
This is the only Christian perspective to consider death: not as the end of life, but as the beginning of the second part, the best, the one in which the servants of God and of the Lamb “shall see his face and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of lamp or sun for God himself will be their light” (Rev 22:3-5).
Even after having settled in the land of Canaan, and becoming a nation of farmers, Israel has always maintained a great longing for the nomadic life of shepherds and never gave up rearing sheep and goats. The wisdom of the Bedouin, who prefers his flock to the jewels and treasures, is reflected by the exhortation of the book of Proverbs: “Know well the state of your herd and tend your flock because the wealth does not last forever. You should have lambs to clothe you and goats to pay for your fields, sufficient goats’ milk to feed you, to sustain your household” (Prov 27:23-27).
The fact of spending a lot of time in isolated places with the flock meant that, between the shepherd and his sheep, a loving relationship is built. The shepherd called each sheep by name, and that it recognized his voice. Wild animals were the greatest dangers to the flock. In biblical times, hyenas and jackals, lions and bears lived in the valley of the Jordan. The shepherds, armed with a slingshot, a strong stick, made more effective by pieces of flint stuck at the end, were prepared to fight against them.
This was the social reality; no wonder, then, that the image of the shepherd is always resumed in the Bible. David is called by God “from the sheepfolds” to shepherd the Israelites and “was for them shepherd with upright heart and pastured them with skillful hands he led them” (Ps 78:70-72). The kings of Israel are often compared to wicked shepherds, instead of feeding the flock, they feed themselves, exploit, disperse and kill (Ezk 34).
God is portrayed as vinedresser and farmer (Is 27: 3; Ps 65), but, above all, as shepherd who guides, protects, nourishes his people (Ps 80:2; 23); “he gathers the lambs in his arms, and gently leading those that are with young” (Is 40:11). He takes care of Israel that has been brought to ruin by unworthy kings and promises: “I will gather the remnant of my sheep from every land to which I have driven them and I will bring them back to the grasslands. They will be fruitful and increase in number. I will appoint shepherds who will take care of them. No longer will they fear or be terrified. No one will be lost. The day is coming when I will raise up a king who is David’s righteous successor. He will rule wisely and govern with justice and righteousness” (Jer 23:3-5). It is the announcement of the Messiah who will be a true shepherd, a king after the heart of God.
Jesus’ statement “I am the good shepherd,” with which today’s Gospel begins, refers explicitly to the fulfillment of this prophecy. He is the shepherd sent by God to take care of the people who are like sheep in disarray (Mk 6:34).
A first explanation is added to the allegory: “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (v. 11).
The parable of the lost sheep is well engraved in our mind. It is narrated by Matthew and Luke (Mt 18:12-14; Lk 15:4-7). It is easy to associate the image of the “good shepherd” with Jesus who, with gentleness and immense compassion, goes in search of those who did wrong in life.
In today’s Gospel, however, the “good shepherd” is not one who is tenderly caressing the wounded sheep, but is the fighter who, at the cost of his own life, confronts anyone who endangers the herd. The reference is not to the bucolic scene of the psalm: “I will bring them back to the grasslands” (Ps 23:2), but to the figure of David who, as a young man, faced the lion and the bear that carried off a sheep. He pursued and knocked them down and plucked the victim from their mouth (1 Sam 17:34-35).
This is characteristic of strong and fearless man who is fighting against bandits and against the wild beasts which today’s gospel takes in to present Jesus.
The qualification of “good” does not refer to feelings; it does not mean sweet, lovable, but “real”, “authentic”, “brave”. Jesus is the true shepherd because he is tied so passionately to his sheep and ready to sacrifice his life for them.
To give the image even more emphasis, Jesus contrasts it with the figure of the mercenary (vv. 12-13).
The villagers, unable to lead to pasture their sheep and goats, resorted to a waged worker who took care of the flocks of all. Strict legislation specified his responsibility: he had to deal with a wolf, two dogs, a small animal, but he could flee from a lion, a leopard, a bear or a thief. In his contract there was no clause to willingly sacrifice his life for the sheep. He did not have an emotional attachment to the flock, and at the face of danger, as soon as he was allowed, he fled; he was not interested in the fate of the sheep, but the salary.
The similitude of the “Good Shepherd” is not directed only at one who carries out in the church the ministry of the presidency, but to every Christian. Every disciple must have a heart of a true shepherd; he/she must cultivate the unconditional generosity of the Master with regards to persons.
The one who has a mercenary’s heart adheres to the minimum requirements set in the contract, quibbles over the duties more or less circumvented, and is faithful to the edicts of the law to obtain a reward or avoid a punishment.
Whoever has a heart like Jesus does not count the cost. He does not ask where his rights reach and where his duties end; what rules are laid down and what are the arrangements with the owner. A unique law follows: the “foolish” love for persons. Love knows no boundaries; it does not stop in the face of any obstacle, risk and sacrifice. Who does not love as Christ has loved will never understand his choices and his proposals; he shall judge him a dreamer, a person under illusion, an imprudent dreamer, a reckless one.
In the second part of the passage (vv. 14-16) Jesus repeats the affirmation “I am the good shepherd” to add a second feature. The true shepherd is one who knows, one by one, his sheep and is known to them.
In the Bible, the verb to know does not only have the meaning of learning. When referring to the relationship between people, it implies a profound experience, indicating the total involvement in love. It is a matter of the heart than of the mind.
This is also true in the relationship with the Lord. In writing to the Galatians, Paul reminds them that once they did not know God, but they were subjected to idols, and he continues: “But now that you have known God, or rather he has known you, how can you turn back to weak and impoverished created things?” (Gal 4:9). If you have entered into a communion of life with him, as the bride with the groom, how can you break away from his love?
Jesus is the Good Shepherd and anyone who gets involved in love for God and the brothers and sisters with the same passion.
The day in which the entire human race will make this experience of reciprocal knowledge. Jesus knows that there are still many people who did not accept his love: “I have other sheep which are not of this fold,” but a true shepherd like him will never give up to lose even one of his sheep. For this he assures: “these I have to lead as well, and they shall listen to my voice. Then there will be one flock, since there is one shepherd” (v. 16).
If this statement is taken seriously, it becomes difficult to argue that even a single man can shirk from the love of the one shepherd.
In the last part (vv. 17-18) the theme of freedom, present in this dynamic of love, is developed. Where there is coercion and fear love does not appear and the fear of God is already a sin.
Jesus showed his love because he freely gave himself: “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down freely. It is mine to lay down and to take up again” (v. 18).
“To take it up again” means that the fate of the one who gives life is not death, but the fullness of life. Making it a gift is the only way to “recover it.” It’s the same principle that, with another image, will be taken up later: “Unless the grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. Those who love their life destroy it, and those who despise their life in this world keep it for everlasting life” (Jn 12:24-25).
There is a video by Fr. Fernando Armellini with English subtitles commenting on today’s Gospel reading: