Commentary on the Readings
The heart of Jesus and our hearts
Devotion to the Sacred Heart has very ancient origins. It has spread in the church especially starting from the seventeenth century through the work of a French mystic, St. Margaret Mary Alacoque. In her autobiography, this Visitation sister tells the revelations she had and refers to the famous twelve promises of the Sacred Heart from which the pious practice of the nine first Fridays of the month was derived. It is on the inspiration of this saint that the feast of the Sacred Heart was established.
Like all forms of popular piety, this too entered into crisis after the Vatican Council II. The traditional image—the one showing the Sacred Heart “on a throne of flames, radiant as the sun, with the adorable wound, surrounded by thorns and topped by a cross” is in conformity with the description given by St. Margaret Mary to whom He appeared. This image, too, first exposed in every home, was gradually replaced by others that expressed a new theological concept and a new spiritual sensitivity.
In the post-council period, many devotional practices have been abandoned. That of the Sacred Heart instead received a decisive boost by the conciliar spirit that led to seeking the solid foundation of every form of spirituality not in private revelations, to which—rightly—a more relative value has been given, but in God’s word.
The mystical experiences of St. Margaret Mary had, for three centuries, a great importance and significant repercussions on the life of the church. They nourished the spirituality of God’s love and fostered a virtuous and committed moral life. However, theologians put forward reservations on these revelation reported by the saint. Today, they no longer are the foundation of devotion to the Sacred Heart, which instead is solidly rooted in the word of God.
Bible study led to some interesting discoveries. It was immediately realized that the devotion to the Sacred Heart was different from the others. It does not emphasize one of the many aspects of the Gospel message, but took the center of Christian revelation: God’s heart, his passion of love for people that became visible in Christ.
In the Bible, the heart is not only intended as the seat of physical life and feelings, but it designates the whole person. It is primarily considered as the seat of intelligence. We may find it strange, but the Semites think and decide with the heart, “God has given people a heart to think”—says Sirach (17:6). He relates even some perceptions of the senses to the Israelite heart. Sirach, at the end of a long life during which he accumulated the most diverse experiences and has gained much wisdom says: My heart has seen much (Sir 1:16).
In this cultural context, the image of the heart has also been applied to God. The Bible, in fact, says that God has a heart that thinks, decides, loves and can also be full of bitterness. This is exactly the feeling that is invoked when, at the beginning of Genesis, the word heart appears for the first time: “The Lord saw how great was the wickedness of man on the earth and the evil was always the only thought of his heart.” What does God feel in the face of so much moral depravity? “The Lord regretted having created man on the earth and his heart grieved” (Gen 6:5-6). He is unfazed—as the philosophers of antiquity thought—; he is not indifferent to what happens to his children. He rejoices when he sees them happy and suffers when they move away from him because he loves them madly. Even if provoked by their faithlessness, he never reacts with aggression and violence.
The designs of the Lord, the thoughts of his heart are always and only projects of salvation. For this—the Psalmist says—“Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord” (Ps 33:11-12).
Until the coming of Christ people knew God’s heart only by “hearsay” (Job 42:5). In Jesus, our eyes have contemplated it. “Whoever sees me, sees him who sent me” (Jn 12:45), Jesus has assured his disciples. In his farewell address at the Last Supper, he reminded them of the same truth: “If you know me, you will know the Father also.... Whoever sees me sees the Father” (Jn 14:7-9). We can come to know the Father’s heart by contemplating his heart.
When we speak of the heart of Jesus, we refer not only to his whole person but also to his deepest emotions. The gospel refers often to what he feels in the face of human needs. His heart is sensitive to the cry of the marginalized. He hears the cry of the leper who, contrary to the requirements of the law, comes up to him and, on his knees, begs him: “If you want to, you can make me clean.” Jesus—the evangelist notes—gets excited from the depths of his bowels. He listens to his heart, not to the provisions of the rabbis who prescribe marginalization. He stretches out his hand, touches him and heals him (Mk 1:40-42).
The heart of Jesus is moved when he meets pain. He shares the disturbance that every person feels in the face of death; he feels sympathy for the widow who has lost her only child and is left alone. At Nain, when he sees the funeral procession advancing, he comes forward, comes close to the mother and tells her: “Stop crying!” And he gives her the son. No one asked him to intervene; no one has asked him to perform the miracle. It is his heart that drove him to move closer to those in pain.
The gospel relates also a heartfelt prayer of Jesus. A father has a child with serious physical and mental problems: he stiffens, foams and is thrown into fire or water. With the last glimmer of hope that remained he goes to Jesus, and, by appealing to the feelings of his heart, directs him a prayer, simple but beautiful: “If you can do anything, have pity on us and help us” (Mk 9:22). “If you can!” (Mk 9:23). It is not an expression of doubt about his feelings, but it is a pointer to a consoling truth: he is always listening to those who suffer.
In Jesus, we have seen God crying for the death of his friend, and for the people unable to recognize the one who offered salvation; we have seen God excited for the tears of a mother, touched by the sick, the marginalized, those who hunger.
The God who asks us confidence is not far away and insensitive. He is the one to whom everyone can shout: “Let yourself be moved!” The God who revealed himself in Jesus is not the impassive one the philosophers talked about. He is a God who has a heart that is moved, rejoices and grieves, weeps with those who weep and smiles with those who are happy. An anonymous Egyptian poet wrote, towards 2,000 B.C.: “I seek a heart on which to rest my head and I cannot find it, they are no longer friends.”
We are luckier: we have a heart—that of Jesus—on which to lay our head to hear from him at all times, words of consolation, hope, and forgiveness. Today's feast wants to introduce us, through the meditation of the Word of God, in the intimacy of Jesus’ heart, so that we learn to love as he loved.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“Give us, Jesus, a heart like yours.”
– YEAR A –
The emotion a woman feels, when the young man who is destined to become her husband, opening his own heart, for the first time whispers: “I love you,” is memorable. Even Israel has never forgotten the day that his God has made the first declaration of love. The sacred author has kept in the moving page of Deuteronomy proposed to us today: “You are a people consecrated to the Lord” (v. 6).
It is the formula by which the Lord swore eternal love to Israel—his beloved—promising unswerving loyalty: “The Lord your God has chosen you from among all the people on the face of the earth, that you may be his own people” (v. 6).
Israel, the favorite. Why? All other nations ask. How is she able to draw to herself the attention and affection of the Lord? How did she conquer his heart? What’s so fascinating about her? Experience suggests us the answer: the lover’s heart is unpredictable; it follows its own logic; it has reasons that the mind does not understand.
One cannot command the heart. In fact, not even God was able to command his own heart. Logic required that—given its high position—he chose to ally himself with a famous people, powerful, worthy of him. Instead, he fell in love with Israel, not because it was the “most numerous among all the peoples,” but because it was the least, the most insignificant of all (vv. 7-8).
God is not attracted by the rich because they do not need anything; they have it all and no one can enrich them. His heart turns irresistibly to the poor because only to the poor he can deliver himself and give them all the best. Israel has this mission to carry out in the world: to remind always and to all what the Lord’s preferences are. It is the image of all those who will always recall the attention of God’s heart: the marginalized, the miserable, the sinners, those who, in the eyes of the world, do not matter.
Paul understood it very well when he wrote to the Corinthians: “Yet God has chosen what the world considers foolish, to shame the wise; he has chosen what the world considers weak to shame the strong. God has chosen common and unimportant people, making use of what is nothing to nullify the things that are” (1 Cor 1:27-28).
In Jesus, God’s heart is made visible and showed his preferences for the last: he is born in a cave of the shepherds, grew up among the poor of the world, has chosen the company of tax collectors and sinners and returned to heaven bringing with him a criminal who represents the whole of humanity at last conquered by his love.
In the second part of the reading (vv. 9-11), God reveals to Israel—the bride he has chosen—what is expected of her: an answer without compromises or reservations to his immense love. If she refuses him she would decree her own ruin; she would declare her preference for her own misery than the condition of the queen.
The dramatic nature of this choice is presented in our passage—as in many other pages of the Bible—with the image of punishment, of retribution from God, the unrequited love (v. 10). It is a literary language that wants to draw attention to the responsibility assumed by one who rejects the proposal of the Lord.
According to people’s criteria, the spontaneous response to ingratitude is punishment. But God does not behave in this way because he cannot help but love, as assured by the prophet Hosea: “My heart is troubled within me and I am moved with compassion I will not give vent to my anger for I am God and not human” (Hos 11:8-9).
More than the other evangelists, John gained insight into the secrets of the heart of Jesus and discovered the immensity of God's love. He exclaimed with overwhelming joy: “See what singular love the Father has for us: we are called children of God and we really are” (1 Jn 3:1). In today’s passage, he takes up and develops the theme of divine sonship that filled him with wonder. He begins with an exhortation: “My dear friends, let us love one another for love comes from God. Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God” (v. 1).
Jesus made the same request to the disciples and presenting it as a commandment, as the hallmark of his followers: “Now I give you a new commandment: Love one another! Just as I have loved you, you also must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:34-35).
John does not speak of commandment. To the Christians of his community, he reveals the wonders of the heart of God he contemplated in Jesus. He found that “God is light and there is no darkness in him,” that is why Christians must walk “in the light, as he is in the light” (1 Jn 1:5-6). Then his mystical gaze went beyond and captured the heart of the divine life: God is love. It is from this infinite source that love emanates and spreads among people.
One does not love for an imposition, but for an inner need, for the impulse that comes from the new heart, from the heart of the children of the One who “is love.” Love for the Christian is a given fact; is the necessary manifestation of this new reality in his heart: the divine seed placed in him.
Children of God are those from whose life love emerges. “Those who work for peace, they shall be called children of God” (Mt 5:9); those who love their enemies and pray for their persecutors are “children of your Father in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on both the wicked and the good” (Mt 5:44).
This is a similarity from which even the greatest saint will remain infinitely distant, but towards which we must constantly strive to. In fact, Paul exhorts: “As most beloved children of God, strive to imitate him” (Eph 5:1). Only in Jesus, the only Son of God, the love of the Father’s heart is fully manifested.
The second part of the passage (vv. 9-10) describes what consists love. God has shown his love by giving us what was most precious to him, his Only Begotten Son. He sent him into the world as a “victim of expiation for our sins.” He loved us, not because we were good, but he has made us good by sending his son to involve us in his love, “the time that Christ died for us: when we were still helpless and unable to do anything” (Rom 5:6).
In the last part of the reading (vv. 11-16), John explains what happens in the life of a person when the Spirit, that animates the heart of the Father who is in heaven, is present. The divine sonship is not a reward reserved for those who behave well; it is a free gift. However, it is easy to see where and by whom this divine seed was welcomed: everywhere one notices a spark of love revealing the presence of the divine life; it is there the Spirit of our Heavenly Father is acting.
God’s heart will never cease to amaze, reserving surprises in store even if not everyone will be able to seize them. In today’s Gospel, Jesus suggests the interior dispositions necessary to be able to understand the gestures of love of the Father and to be involved in it.
At the beginning of his public life, along the Sea of Galilee, Jesus has stirred many enthusiasts and had considerable success. Full of wonder at the miracles worked by him, the crowds were asking: “Who can this be?” (Mk 3:41), “How did this come to him? What kind of wisdom has been given to him?” (Mk 6:2).
But soon misunderstandings began: people began to struggle to understand and respond to the new message he preached. The Pharisees, inflexible guardians of the law, almost immediately opposed him as perverting the sacred traditions of their people. Even many disciples, puzzled by his proposals, separated themselves and turned away from him (Jn 6:66). Even his family has shown themselves quite cold and distrustful: “For neither did his brothers believe in him”—says John (Jn 7:5).
Only a small group of disciples belonging to the poorer classes and despised of the Jewish society remained with Jesus. The Master is not agitated and to the Twelve—confused and bewildered by his discourse on the bread of life—he asked a provocative question: “Will you also go away.” On behalf of all, Peter could only reply: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (Jn 6:67-69). There is nothing to wonder about this general confusion: it is not easy for anyone to understand the heart of God who revealed himself in Christ.
This passage must be placed in this difficult time of Jesus’ preaching. Chapter 11 of Matthew’s Gospel from which it is taken, begins by introducing the crisis of faith of the Baptist. He sends some of his disciples to ask Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come or should we expect someone else?” (Mt 11:3), then the passage continues with the heavy judgment of Jesus on his generation (Mt 11:16-19) and with the threat: “Alas for you Chorazin and Bethsaida” (Mt 11:21-24).
In the middle of public life, the balance could only be seen as disappointing. Faced with a similar failure, we would have dropped our arms. Jesus instead rejoices for what happened and says: “Father, Lord of heaven and earth, I praise you because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to simple people” (v. 25).
The wise and the intelligent are often mentioned together in the Bible and, many times, in a pejorative sense. They are those who declare themselves devoted researchers of wisdom. They even think of having the monopoly, while in reality, they rack their brains in foolishness and revel in vain disquisition. Against them, the prophet Isaiah had declared: “Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and take themselves for sages” (Is 5:21).
Jesus does not declare them excluded from salvation. He merely states a fact: the poor, the humble, marginalized people were first to welcome his liberating word. It is normal—he says—that this happens because the small ones, more than any other, feel the need of God’s tenderness, hunger and thirst for justice, weep, live in grief and wait for the Lord to intervene to lift their head and fill them with joy. They are blessed because for them the kingdom of God has come. Then he adds: this fact is part of the Father’s plan: “Yes, Father, this is what pleased you” (v. 26).
The belief that God is a friend only of the good and the righteous, who prefers those who behave well and bears with difficulty those who sin, is deeply rooted. This is the God created by the “wise” and the “intelligent.” It is the product of human logic and criteria.
The Father of Jesus instead goes to recover those that we throw in the trash. He prefers those who are despised and those who are not paid attention to by anyone, the public sinners (Mt 11:19) and prostitutes (Mt 21:31) because they are the most in need of his love.
The rich, the satiated, those who are proud of their knowledge do not need this Father. They hold tight to their God. They will also reach salvation, of course, but only when they make themselves “small ones.” The trouble for them is that of arriving late, of losing precious time. In the second part of the passage (v. 27), an important statement of Jesus is introduced: “No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”
The verb ‘to know’ in the Bible does not mean having met or contacted a person a few times. It means ‘to have had a profound experience of the person.’ It is used, for example, to indicate the intimate relationship that exists between husband and wife (cf. Lk 1:34). A full knowledge of the Father is possible only to the Son. However, he may communicate this experience to anyone he wants. Who will have the right disposition to accept his revelation? The small ones, of course.
The scribes, rabbis, those who are educated in every detail of the law, are convinced that they have the full knowledge of God. They maintain they know how to discern what is good. They present themselves as guides for the blind, as light to those who are in darkness, as educators of the ignorant, as masters of the simple ones (Rom 2:18-20). As long as they do not give up their attitude of being “wise” and “intelligent” people, they preclude the true and rewarding experience of God’s love.
The last part of the passage (vv. 28-30) refers to the oppression that the “small ones,” the simple people of the land, the poor, those who suffer from the “wise and intelligent.”
They (the scribes and Pharisees) have structured a very complicated religion, made up of minute rules, prescriptions impossible to observe. They loaded the shoulders of ignorant people “unbearable burdens that they do not even move a finger to help them” (Lk 11:46).
The law of God, yes, is a yoke and the wise Sirach recommended to his son: “Put her constraints on your feet and her yoke on your neck, do not rebel against the chains… you will find in her your rest” (Sir 6:24-28), but the religion preached by the masters of Israel has transformed it in an oppressive yoke. For this, the poor not only feel wretched in this world but also rejected by God and excluded from the world to come. The poor, unable to observe the provisions dictated by the rabbis, are convinced that they are impure: “Only this cursed people who have no knowledge of the law” declared the high priest Caiaphas (Jn 7:49). To these poor, lost and disoriented people, Jesus addressed the invitation to be free from fear and distressing religion instilled in them. He recommends: Accept my law, the new one that is summed up in a single commandment: love, because in God’s heart there is only love.
He does not propose an easier and permissive moral, but an ethic that points directly to the essential. It does not make one to waste energies in the observance of prescriptions “that has the appearance of wisdom” but in reality, they have no value (Col 2:23). His yoke is sweet. First of all, because it is his: not in the sense that he imposed it, but because he carried it first. Jesus always bent down to the Father's will. He freely embraced it while he never imposed human precepts (Mk 7). His yoke is sweet because only those who accept the wisdom of the beatitudes can experience the true joy.
Finally, the invitation: “Learn from me for I am meek and humble of heart” (v. 29). Perhaps this statement leaves us a bit confused because it seems a deserved auto-celebration, certainly, but not appropriate. These words are nothing more than a boast. “Learn from me” simply means: do not follow the teachers who act as masters on your consciences. They preach a God who is not on the side of the poor, the sinners and the last. They teach a religion that takes away the joy with its fussiness and absurdity.
Jesus presents himself as meek and humble of heart. These are the terms that we find in the Beatitudes. They do not indicate the timid, the meek, the quiet, but those who are poor and oppressed and those who, while suffering injustice, do not resort to violence.
Jesus experienced dramatic conflicts, but he confronted them with the disposition of heart that characterize the "meek." He did not renounce to confront the forces of evil; he did not escape far away from the world and from the problems of people. He has a meek heart because he made himself small; he chose the last place, and put himself at the service of people and assumed the attitude of a slave.
This is the “yoke” that he proposes also to his disciples. To all these poor people of the land, Jesus says: I'm on your side, I am one of you; I am poor and rejected.
This Gospel passage invites us to make both personal and community reflection. Which God do we believe in? Is he that one of the “wise”, or that one revealed to us by Jesus? For whom is our community a sign of hope, for whom is one convinced of meriting the first place, for whom does one feel unworthy to cross the threshold of the church? Does it testify the tenderness of God’s heart or the stiffness of the legalists’ heart?
– YEAR B
Unlike the pagan nations who approached the gods with fear and trembling, deeming them susceptible, capricious and even cruel. Christians know that God is not an unapproachable despot, but a loving father. Jesus speaks of God as Father 180 times in the Gospels. It should, therefore, be obvious and spontaneous for Christians to cultivate feelings of tenderness and loving trust in the Lord.
Instead, they too fall back, almost instinctively, on the image—most familiar to people—of the fussy authority God, bookkeeper of merits and faults, rigorous controller of weaknesses, severe guardian of the world order.
Today’s feast wants to free us from this unhelpful and false image of God. He wants to reveal his true face and usher us in his heart. He does this by inviting us to meditate on some biblical passages. The first is of the prophet Hosea, a particularly sensitive man to the disappointments of love because of the unhappy marital experience that he has lived.
On the page that is proposed to us, he makes us contemplate on the family life of his time. In a village of Samaria, a family is gathering for dinner. The mother is maybe out into the courtyard baking bread on the oven. Inside the house, the father, tired from the labors of the day, is sitting on the bench closed to the wall and approvingly looks on the smallest son trying to take its first steps.
At this point, the scene starts: the child steps wrongly on the rough basalt stones and falls. The smiling father approaches him, takes him by the hand and raises him up. Then he embraces him and tenderly draws him close to his cheek.
The mother returns with the food. The brat gets moody, does not want to eat, and would like to continue playing. The father leans over and strokes him trying to convince him to take the food he needs to grow healthy and strong.
The scene dissolves and from the parable passes on to reality. The characters appear with their true face. The loving father is none other than God and the child cuddled with such affection is Israel. This child conceived in Egypt is accompanied by the hand into the desert where she learned to walk and then introduced into a delightful land.
The prophet continues to tell the story of his people. He explicitly does it now without recourse to symbols. Israel has grown. She forgets the kindness of his father; she became rebellious, decided to free herself to become master of her own destiny. She repudiated the education received and erased from her mind and heart the fatherly image of her God.
What will the Lord do now? How will he react in the face of so much ingratitude? The pains of a heart wounded by refusal and betrayal are lacerating. Whoever experiences it is impatient in finding a solution so as to soothe it. He can no longer endure it. Firstly, he tries in any way to forget the loved person, then unleashes his anger, vindicates, tries to humiliate her, and would even like to destroy her.
The unrequited love can lead to madness and to make rash actions. This happens to people, but not with God. God follows another logic, that of the excess, of love: “My heart is troubled within me and I am moved with compassion. I will not give vent to my great anger… for I am God and not human” (vv. 8-9).
God will never punish those who reject him: He has heart of a father and a father—we know—cannot help but love.
There is no greater joy than to feel valued, loved, and courted. However, it can happen that we live in despair and loneliness because we have not realized that there exists someone who really loves us.
We were told that before we were conceived God has thought, willed and loved us. This message perhaps has left us indifferent. We considered it a lullaby for babies. We did not let ourselves be engaged and we continued to think that the relevant things of life were others, more concrete. Nevertheless, knowing that there is Someone who cares about me, who contemplated me with love since “I was being formed in secret in my mother’s womb” (Ps 139:14-15), who now tenderly accompanies my every step and waits for me—good or bad that I was—with his paternal arms wide open, is a decisive thought to give meaning and fill with joy every moment of my life.
It is a sublime mission to proclaim to the world the good news that, from all eternity, every person is in the heart of God. Paul was aware of the responsibility he had assumed when he agreed to carry out this mission in favor of the pagans. He had been a persecutor—writing to the Ephesians he calls himself “the least among all the holy ones”—but, after being enlightened and having understood God’s plan of love, his plan to lead to salvation every person, he devoted his life to this proclamation (vv. 8-11).
Since, in Jesus, the Lord has come among us, all the fears about God are over. We come to him with confidence, not because we feel pure and blameless, but because it has been revealed to us that, whatever our conduct may be, he will always and forever love us (v. 12). After transmitting this good news to the Ephesians, Paul addresses a prayer to the Father from whom every life has its origin (vv. 14-15) and makes three requests.
To the disciples who in baptism have received the Spirit he asks, above all, an inner reinforcement, an abundant outpouring of this divine force, so that they can become always more like Christ. In fact, they were not only loved but were made capable of loving. Their hearts, overflowing of the Spirit of Christ, have turned into the source of living water that wells up and spreads in the world the same love of the Father who is in heaven (vv. 16-17).
Then he demands that they may internalize more and more the sublime knowledge of the love that God has for them, love made visible and tangible in Christ (v. 18).
This is the central verse of our reading. It invites us to contemplate the four dimensions of this love that embraces all the space and time. The breadth. It is a love without borders, extending to the just and to sinners, to good and degenerate children. In writing to the Christians in Rome, Paul has already indicated the magnitude of this love: “When we were still helpless and unable to do anything, Christ died for us. Few would accept to die for an upright person, although for a very good person, perhaps someone would dare to die. But see how God manifested his love for us, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:6-8).
The length. How long will it last? God’s time is eternity. He will never cease to love; he has not the shortness of breath as we have. In front of refusal and ingratitude, we change attitude and we pass on rapidly from love to hatred, from welcome to rejection.
The height. The love of Christ is raised to the most sublime peak: the heart of the Father who is in heaven with whom he has always kept himself in perfect harmony. It is the goal, for us unattainable, but to which Jesus wants us always tend to: “Be merciful just as your Father is merciful” (Lk 6:36).
The depth. We would never have discovered the infinite love of God’s heart if the “only begotten Son who is in and with the Father” had not come among us to reveal it, not just with words, but with his whole life (Jn 1:18).
He came down from the heights of heaven and what depth has he reached? Is there any ravine that has frightened him or some abyss of guilt that for him has proved inaccessible?
The Father cannot resign himself to the loss of even one of his children, so he sent his only Son to search them everywhere and lead them to him. The Son came to earth: he passed “through the squares and streets of the city.” He has taken in hand “the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.” To fill the house of the Father, he also came out “on the streets and along the hedges” in search of those who, because of their moral weakness, were shunned by everyone and marginalized by the religious institution (Lk 14:21-23).
Concluding his mission on earth, he even went down lower; he penetrated the frightening abyss of Hades where death reigned supreme.
In his first letter, Peter teaches that Christ “went to preach to the imprisoned spirits.” He reached not the righteous but the unbelievers of Noah’s time—stubborn and disobedient people—symbol of all those who died refusing God until the end (1 P 3:18-20).
Someone believes that there is no more hope. But Peter ensures that this abyss has been reached by Christ’s salvation. Those who have understood the depth of God’s love can cultivate the hope that hell also has been emptied. It is hard to believe it because our heart is small and narrow. As a last request, Paul asks the Lord (v. 19) that, in their lives, the Ephesians may know God’s infinite love that they may be filled and reach the fullness of God.
Symbolism, explicit references or veiled allusions to the texts of the Holy Scriptures are found throughout the Gospel of John. In this passage, they are touching the apex.
The fact in itself—that a soldier had hurled his spear against the lifeless body of Jesus—is marginal and unimportant. Yet the evangelist draws on it the attention of his readers with an insistence that may appear excessive. Three times he appeals to the reliability of his testimony: “The one who saw it, has testified to it, and his testimony is true; he knows he speaks the truth, so that you also may believe” (v. 35).
In this episode, he has therefore foreseen a significant meaning for the faith of the disciples. A first clue is offered by the mention—at the beginning of the passage—of the time when it happened. It was the Preparation Day; it was the time when, in the esplanade of the temple, the priests were sacrificing the Passover lambs.
It is an open invitation of the evangelist to read the event in light of the Exodus story. The Baptist, seeing Jesus coming towards him, said: “There is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29). He had guessed that the lamb slain in Egypt was just a pale image of the true Paschal Lamb.
It is on Calvary—ensures John—that, on Preparation Day, this Lamb was slain. Offering his own blood, Jesus has saved all humankind from the angel exterminator, from the evil spirit that is rooted in the person and is the cause of death.
To highlight even more this message, John records a detail ignored by the other evangelists. The two robbers crucified with Jesus, the soldiers, to hasten death, broke the legs while they left intact those of Jesus, who was already dead. Here is another reference to the Paschal Lamb to which—according to the provisions of the Book of Exodus—no bones must be broken (Ex 12:46).
John will largely develop this theme in Revelation. He will contemplate in heaven the immolated Lamb turned pastor and leader of an immense flock, consisting of those who have had the courage to follow in his footsteps (Rev 7:17).
At the end of his revelation, the Seer of the Apocalypse will hear the voice of an angel: “Come, I am going to show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb” (Rev 21:9) and another angel say, “Write: Happy are those invited to the wedding of the Lamb!” (Rev 19:9). The history of the world will close with a wedding feast: an encounter of love among all those who—along with the immolated Lamb on Calvary—will have made their life a gift. There is a second point on which the Evangelist draws attention: one of the soldiers with a spear, struck the side of Jesus and from the wound immediately came out blood and something like water. The physiological fact in itself has very little relevance, but for John, this event is an extraordinary sign. The blood for a Semite is the symbol of life: pouring every last drop means giving one’s life.
It is the message that the evangelist wants to convey. Through the wound of the side from which the last drop of blood flows one can see the heart of God, his love without limits: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life” (Jn 3:16).
What benefits are there for the world from this immense love? “Unless the grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it will remain alone, but if it dies, it produces much fruit” (Jn 12:24)—Jesus had said. Now here is the fruit: the outpouring of the Spirit, symbolized by the water gushing from the side of Christ.
The living water, repeatedly promised, flowed from God’s heart. Jesus told the Samaritan woman: “Those who drink of this water will be thirsty again; but those who drink of the water that I shall give, will never be thirsty; for the water that I shall give will become in them a spring of water, welling up to eternal life” (Jn 4:14). In the temple Mount, during the festival of booths, he solemnly declared: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink, for the Scriptures says: Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water. Jesus was referring to the Spirit, which those who believe in him were to receive, the Spirit had not yet been given, because Jesus had not entered into his glory” (Jn 7:37-39).
The supreme gesture of love performed by the Man-God, the gift of his blood, his life, has opened up the heavenly streams of living water, the Spirit of Christ has been poured out on the world.
John solemnly concludes the sublime page of theology that has outlined: “They shall look to him whom they have pierced.” It is a biblical quote that refers to a mysterious prophecy pronounced towards the end of the fourth century B.C. and conserved in the book of Zechariah (Zec 12:10). It speaks of a just and innocent man who was pierced; soon after, however, the Lord has awakened in people, responsible for that crime, a sharp pain, a sincere repentance. They all repented and looked to him whom they had pierced; they broke out in a desperate cry, a cry similar to that of the parents who lost their only son, comparable to the mourning for the death of a firstborn son (Zec 12:10-11).
Who is this man and why was he killed? The prophet is certainly referring to a dramatic event that happened in his time. We know nothing else. What interests us is that John has recognized in this mysterious person the image of Jesus. All people will look to Christ, executed and pierced on the cross, as their Savior; the Crucifix will become the reference point of all their choice; it will orient all their lives.
On Easter Day, the wound on the side became the sign of recognition of the Risen One. When he appeared to the disciples, “he showed them his hands and his side” (Jn 20:20,25,27). The hands are the reminder of the things he has made; they recall all his acts of love. His side indicates the peak reached by this love: “As he had loved those who were his own in the world, he would love them with perfect love” (Jn 13:1), even to the giving of one’s whole blood.
The side is a sign that speaks of an inexhaustible source of love: God’s heart.
– YEAR C –
Since its origins, Israel has been a pastoral people. It is not surprising therefore that the Bible speak of lambs, sheep and goats more than five hundred times and that the figure and the title of shepherd also applied to the king and to the Lord.
What characteristics of God’s heart are highlighted by this image? Today, God himself reveal it through the words of the prophet Ezekiel. His parable is set in the historical context in which it was pronounced.
In 586 B.C. the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and the city walls were razed. The Babylonian soldiers, after having done all sorts of barbarism, deported to their homeland the good people of Israel. They left behind only the poorest in the country: some winemakers, farmers and a few craftsmen.
After this catastrophe, years of total anarchy followed. Among those who remained in the land, some most cunning people took advantage of the situation of extreme need besetting the people and began to exploit those who were impoverished. They bought, sold, trafficked unscrupulously. Thinking back on the plight of his people, Ezekiel compares the Israelites to a flock in disarray and without a shepherd. He summons those responsible for the disastrous situation: the rulers, unworthy shepherds. His heartfelt words are of denunciation and condemnation: “But you feed on milk and are clothed in wool and you slaughter the fattest sheep. You have not taken care of the flock, you have not strengthened the weak, cared for the sick or bandaged the injured. You have not gone after the sheep that strayed, or searched for the one that was lost. You ruled them harshly and were their oppressors. My sheep wander over the mountains and high hills and were scattered throughout the land, no one bothers about them or looks for them” (Ezk 34:3-6).
What will the Lord do now? His heart sensitive to the pain of the children led him to intervene. Continuing to use the image of the shepherd, God opens his own heart, reveals his concern for the people and what he intends to do: “I myself will care for my sheep and watch over them” (v. 11). He had enjoined David: “You shall be the shepherd of my people” (2 Sam 5:2), but the response was disappointing: all the kings of Israel had acted as mercenaries. Here now is his decision: he will intervene personally, he will not make use of unreliable persons; he himself will become the shepherd. He will begin to gather his dispersed sheep and will not rest until he has recovered the last. Then, after having brought them back to the fold, he will gently heal the wounds inflicted on them. He will watch over his sheep (v. 12).
As a shepherd who knows each of his sheep by name, God does not address anonymous masses where individuals do not count. He is interested in the problems of each one, calling each one by name. He will watch over each of his children so that no one will miss the call. If one arrives late, he will be worried and will take care of this one more than the others. He will gather his sheep from all the places where they were scattered in a time of cloud and fog (v. 12).
The sheep go easily astray because they have a weak sight. They see only up to five or six meters. If they are not in close contact with the flock and the shepherd they get lost. They are disoriented by their bleating and the echoes of the mountains. Unable to find for themselves the way to the sheepfold, they wander confused till they get entangled in the brambles or plunge into ravines. They are safe only when they are united with the others.
God saves his people gathering them into one fold. There is no dark valley or steep hill that can stop him from reaching his sheep. His heart of a shepherd forces him to go down into the deepest depths of the abyss and certainly would even visit hell if one of his children had dropped there. He will bring them out from the nations and will lead them to their own land (v. 13).
The sheep that strays from their fold and wanders in disarray may end up aggregated to other flocks. It has happened to Israel who, separated from her God, has fallen into the hands of other “peoples.”
Far away from their land, Israel has never been happy. Egypt had plenty of food, but she was in the land of slavery. In Babylon, the soil was fertile, but it was the land of exile. The history of Israel is a parable: it is the experience of one who, attracted by the mirages, abandons the Lord’s house and finds himself a prisoner of robbers who enslave and threaten his life.
God’s heart cannot bear to see his children in that desperate condition. He goes to take them back. He wants to rescue them from tyrants who enslaved them—vice, moral corruption, unruly passions—and to bring them back in the land of freedom.
He will pasture them on the mountains in all the valleys and inhabited regions of the land (vv. 13-14). We trust the words of someone only when we are certain that he loves us and wants our good.
Shepherd and his flock live in symbiosis: the life of sheep is dependent on the shepherd, but also the joy of these depends on the flock. The relationship is that of mutual trust, of communion of life.
The intimacy between God and humanity is well represented by the delightful scene just mentioned in our reading—the mountains, the valleys, the plains—and developed in Psalm 23 where the shepherd and his flock are presented lying together on the lawn of an oasis, next to a source of fresh water where they are quenched after the tiring journey in the dry and dusty desert.
God does not give provisions to see if his authority is respected. He speaks to the heart, because he loves, because he has a shepherd’s heart. He himself will tend his sheep and let them rest (v. 15). The true shepherd makes himself a travel companion. In Jesus of Nazareth, God became one of us. He has experienced our labors and our tiredness and did not give up in the face of any obstacle.
He continued to walk up to the place of rest. Now, he continues to accompany each of us up to the ultimate goal, the house where “there shall be no more death or mourning, crying out or pain, for the world that was, has passed away" (Rev 21:4).
The reading’s final verse summarizes the kindness of God–shepherd (v. 16). He will go in search of the lost sheep and bring back the strayed one. He will bind up the wound and heal the sick, take care of the fat and the strong; He will shepherd them with justice.
There is an aspect of God’s heart, which has not yet been referred to and which is highlighted at the very end. God cares—we have seen it—for the most needy; but this is not to suggest that he will forget the one who is spiritually fat and strong. This person also—ensures the Prophet—is the object of his attentions. His love is infinite and each one reserves a special place in his “heart.”
The first reading has made us contemplate the heart of God–shepherd. He is good and only good with the sheep; he does not strike them if they turn away, if they get lost, if they are injured. He goes in search of those who are lost, leads them back to the fold and gently cares for them, one by one.
His heart is full of love—we are convinced—yet we continue to listen to the vicious rumor that suggests not to trust him. So many times we let ourselves be seduced and wander away from the shepherd. The risk that God’s love is unrequited is always incumbent. How can we hope that the history of every person will end well? Who can assure us that our foolishness will not bring us so low as to be unattainable even by God? Paul answers to this distressing question: “Hope does not disappoint” (v. 5) and the reason is simple: the one who leads the game is not us, but God who knows how to handle it with unparalleled skill. He has poured out into our hearts his Spirit and knows how to involve us in his love. He does not lose heart in the face of any obstacle and does not strike when we are unfaithful.
Nothing, therefore, should damage our joy; hope will not be disappointed because it is not based on our faithfulness, on our good works, but on the faithfulness of God.
His love is not fragile and fickle. People—notes Paul—know how to love their friends and may, rarely, even come to give life to those whom they love. God’s love has no boundaries; he does not know enemies, but only children. While people were away from him, he gave them his most precious treasure, the Son (vv. 6-8).
If God loved us when we were enemies, how much more he will love us now that we have received his Spirit and have been made righteous. It is not possible that our sins may be stronger than his love. Even if we abandon him, he does not abandon us, “if we are unfaithful, he remains faithful for he cannot deny himself” (2 Tim 2:13).
The behavior of God for us is amazing. We know only one form of justice: to compensate those who do good and punish the evil-doer. God is “holy”; he is completely different from us. He grants his benefits to those who do not deserve them but distributes them free to all, because no one deserves them. He does not abandon, does not refuse, does not punish. He takes care of his sheep that—as promised by Jesus—“shall never perish, no one can snatch them from his hand” (Jn 10:28).
The sheep are easily lost and being devoid of the sense of direction. They are unable to return alone to the fold. Weakest and most defenseless of other grazing animals, they are in constant danger when far away from the shepherd.
To speak to us of God’s heart and how valuable each of his children to him, Jesus, grown up in a pastoral society, has resorted to the image of the sheep that strays.
He told a parable not to clarify what needs to be done by one who has turned away from the Lord, but to introduce his listeners and us in the heart of God, to make us understand what the Father of heaven feels when a son of his gets lost. He recounted it to highlight what God is willing to do to bring home a sinner and the joy he feels when he can embrace him.
From the first centuries of the church, this parable—one of the best known—has inspired artists who have reproduced in paintings, sculptures and mosaics. No image of Jesus has ever been so dear to Christians as that of the Good Shepherd with a lamb on his shoulders. Some details of the story seem unrealistic and, of course, were introduced by Jesus because they are paradoxical.
We observe the shepherd’s behavior. It is illogical: he leaves ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness to go in search of the lost one. We ask ourselves: does he not know that in that desolate place the herd is at risk? There are robbers, wolves and jackals, the steep paths, the ravines. To someone like him who knows all the secrets of the desert, and that as a child he learned to cope in the most difficult circumstances, there nothing more to teach. If he behaves so it is because love and the concern for his sheep in danger drove him mad. He is driven by the heart, not any more by reason.
Beautiful image of the involvement of God in the human drama—sometimes through the person’s own fault, most of the time not; he is enmeshed in the toils of sin and is no longer able to break himself free. He aspires to a different life, wants to rehabilitate, to recover his own dignity, to be loved and accepted, in a word, to reconnect with the Shepherd who “lies down in green pastures and lead us beside still waters” (Ps 23:2), but he does not see how to get out of the abyss where he plunged in.
God has a caring and sensitive heart. In Jesus we have seen him appreciate those who spiritually enjoyed excellent health, but his attentions were directed to the sick. To those who accused him of eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners, he replied: “Healthy people do not need a doctor, but sick people do. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mk 2:17).
The second part of the parable is all about the joy and the celebration. It starts with the gesture of the contented shepherd who carries on his shoulders the sheep that he has found. It is moving when referred to God.
Some keepers—irritable and not caring, mercenaries who fled at the appearance of the wolf—broke a leg of the sheep that used to get away from the flock.
God has a heart of a shepherd, not a mercenary. He has a heart capable only of loving and doing good. He is a shepherd who “gives his life for the sheep” (Jn 10:11). He does not condemn nor punish those who did wrong. He does not condemn those who, attracted by the mirages, has lost sight of its Shepherd and fell into the abyss of sin. He adds no evil to that which, wandering away from him, man has already done.
In Judaism it was taught that the Lord grants his pardon to those who are genuinely contrite, to those that with fasting, penance, tattered clothes, prostrations manifest a strong desire to reform. The God of Jesus takes into his arms the lost one without checking first if there was at least a gesture of good will or repentance on the part of this person. The recovery is all his work.
The description of the feast is not very realistic; it is excessive. For an incident with a rather trivial background, the shepherd ran from house to house, calling friends and neighbors and hosts a feast whose story occupies more than half of the parable. It is the image of the infinite joy that God’s heart feels when he manages to recover his child.
The rabbis taught that the Lord is pleased for the resurrection of the righteous, and rejoices in the destruction of the wicked. Jesus rejects this official catechesis and announces what the real feelings of God are. The Father rejoices not for the punishment, but for the resurrection of the wicked: “There will be more rejoicing in heaven over one repentant sinner, than over ninety-nine decent people, who do not need to repent.” The woman who lost her drama “after finding it, calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, “Celebrate with me, for I have found the silver coin I lost!” (Lk 15:9). The father of the prodigal son orders: “Take the fattened calf and kill it. We shall celebrate and have a feast” (Lk 15:23).
God loves and organizes the feast: “the Lord of hosts, will prepare for all peoples a feast of rich food and choice wines, meat full of marrow, fine wine strained. Death will be no more. He will wipe away the tears from all cheeks and eyes” (Is 25:6-8). “The Kingdom of heaven is like a king who celebrated the wedding of his son. He sent his servants to call the invited guests” (Mt 22:2-3). The symbol of the festival runs through the whole Bible. Human history will end with a wedding feast (Rev 19:9). Who are the guests?
The doctrine of just retribution was a staple of the rabbinic theology. Jesus contradicts it openly showing that the tenderness and solicitude of God are directed not to those who deserve it, but, gratuitously, to those in need.
Someone, from the earliest times of the Church, has deduced from these texts the invitation to commit sins, certain that help will come anyway. In the letter to the Romans, after speaking of the salvation offered freely by God to people, Paul continues: “Are we to sin because we are not under the Law, but under grace? Certainly not!” (Rom 6:15). A few years later another prominent personality of the Church—who presents himself with the name of Judas, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James—warns Christians of some wicked people who have infiltrated the community and that “they make use of the grace of God as a license for immorality” (Jude 4).
It’s a foolishness that derives, like all sins, from having assimilated a false image of God, conceived as the despot who demands unjustified obedience and imposes himself with threats of punishment. Since no one can stand before him with accounts in good standing, they think of ensuring life, the guarantee of immunity, to wipe the slate clean, to erase all debts.
Sin is not a spot to be erased, but a wound to heal; it is a loss not a gain, a search for illusory happiness that does not grow, but destroys, a move away from the family home where he is expected to attend the feast.
To help the sinner find himself, bring life and joy back to him soon, it is counterproductive and unfair—because it is a lie and a blasphemy—using the fear of God as a leverage. It is necessary to announce to him—as Jesus does—the truth on God. He has to understand that God is not a judge to fear but a friend who loves and wants to accompany him to the feast. Every moment spent away from him is a moment of love and a time of joy lost, for the sinner ... and also to God.
The conclusion of the parable is surprising; nothing is said of the ninety-nine sheep that are left in the desert. It seems that only the lost one arrived home, carried on the shoulders of the shepherd.
The father of the prodigal son did not remain in the banquet hall while his older brother was out; he went out to get him. The shepherd cannot certainly celebrate until the other ninety-nine sheep are back in the fold.
The loss of even one of his children would be unbearable for God’s heart. If in heaven one were lacking, God would go out to look for him. But first, he begins with by putting securely those who have sinned, those who are in most need of his tenderness because they are the ones who have enjoyed less of his love.