Commentary on the Readings
4th Sunday of Easter – Year C
It’s nice to be carried, but by whom
Since the third century A.D., the image of Christ, the shepherd with a lamb on his shoulders and surrounded by the flock, often appears in the catacombs. It is a scene that intends to portray confidence and serenity when a believer crosses the dark valley of death, supported or guided by his Lord.
But it is not only when he leaves this world that the disciple relies on the arms of his Shepherd. Subsequently, it was made clear that all those who posed themselves as shepherds during their lifetime, but preached teachings contrary to those of Christ’s, were really just mercenaries, peddlers of illusions. At the decisive moment they are forced to declare their inability to help.
The disciple agrees to be accompanied by the Good Shepherd in every moment of his life. Letting oneself be carried is a less comfortable choice than it looks. It requires the courage to entrust one’s life to Christ, without getting caught up in dismay when it is not clear where he is going and where he wants to be lead. It also means resisting the blandishments of pseudo-shepherds who really are thieves and raiders whose only goal (often unconsciously) is self-affirmation; it is the pursuit of self-interest.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“If I will be led through the dark valleys I will fear no evil.”
Today’s reading opens with an excerpt from the story of the first missionary journey of Paul and Barnabas. These two apostles arrive at Antioch in Pisidia on a Sabbath. They enter the synagogue of the Jews and begin to proclaim the Good News of Jesus, which they usually do (v. 14). Their message impresses, surprises, or rather, shakes his listeners, the fervent Jews, educated in the traditions of their fathers, and faithful observers of the law. They know the oracles of the prophets and live in expectation of the Messiah. However, they remain baffled and stunned when, coming from the mouths of Paul and Barnabas, they hear this scandalous message: Jesus, condemned by the religious authorities and executed with a shameful punishment, is the savior of the world. It is unheard of! They cannot but think: maybe we have misunderstood. Because of this, the following Saturday more people came to listen (vv. 14-44).
During the week they reflect on what they have heard and come to the conclusion that what Paul and Barnabas said is blasphemous, an insult to God. After having given so many tests of strength during the exodus, he cannot make himself ridiculous and contemptible to the eyes of the people by sending a defeated and condemned messiah. They feel compelled to defend the purity of their faith. They are not bad people, malicious, dishonest; they are simply conditioned by their religious mindset; they are not willing to question their certainties; they cannot even remotely imagine that the Lord may have some surprises or novelty in reserve (v. 45).
Undeterred by the refusal or intimidated by the opposition of the most devout, the two apostles see in this failure to adhere to the faith by some as an invitation to turn to the Gentiles. Thus the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled: I have set as a light to the pagan nations, so that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth (vv. 46-47).
Not all, however, close their mind and their heart. Many, both Jews and Gentiles, hear God’s call to conversion and choose the path of salvation. So “all those destined for everlasting life believed in it” (v. 48). This is not predestination to heaven for some and eternal damnation for others. In eternal life one does not enter when one dies, but when he/she adheres to the faith and accepts the Messiah of God. Some, in good faith, without realizing what they lose, believe this faith as absurd and refuse it. Those who accept it will immediately enter eternal life. In the end no one will be excluded. The author of Acts finds only that, for the mysterious mechanisms that regulate and condition the freedom of man, some come to life first. Others will certainly come, although later.
The fact that the promises and blessings of God are offered to the Gentiles also worries even more the Jews loyal to their traditions. Seeing that words are not enough to block the events, they resort to abuse. Among the members of their community are noble women whose husbands or children are employed in the key posts of the administrative apparatus of the city. They get to expel the two apostles from the region (v. 50).
An identical incident happened to Jesus early in his public life. As soon as he began to preach in Nazareth, he was also expelled from the synagogue and even risked being lynched by those who gathered for prayer. His countrymen believed to be exemplary religious, convinced to have already understood everything about God. They could not accept that Jesus could undermine their religious certainties and showed them that they knew very little of the Holy Scriptures (Lk 4:16-29).
If Jesus and the apostles were persecuted, it is no wonder that no true preacher of the Gospel be left tranquil and not encounter opponents.
After pointing out that Paul and Barnabas were forced to go to Iconium (v. 51), the passage ends with a curious annotation: the disciples were filled with joy and the Holy Spirit (v. 52). It is strange: the wicked have prevailed, the two apostles must leave defeated and the Christians of Antioch in Pisidia, rather than grieve, are full of joy! Joy can coexist even with tears, disappointment, and the pain of the injustice suffered. The wicked, who oppose the truth and fight against those who announce the Gospel, and the just will not experience this joy if they do not set their hearts free from resentment against those who persecute them.
How much suffering, how many tribulations, how much bitterness in man’s life! When we see so many innocent people suffer, remain victims of violence, betrayal, deception, desperately we ask why, but often we do not find an answer. The book of Revelation devotes four chapters to this distressing problem (Rev 5–8). It says that, in heaven, there is a book in which an angel took note of all the sufferings and all the tears of the people. The reasons why many incomprehensible and absurd things happen are also said in this book. Unfortunately, the book is closed with seven seals that no man is able to break; here is the reason why people cry: they feel like being at the mercy of blind fate and not finding an explanation of the tragedies that afflict them.
So, have we no hope of finding a meaning to the history of the world? Will the book containing the answer to our anguish, our deepest questions, be closed forever? The Seer of the Apocalypse invites us all to put an end to tears: the Lamb—he says—will open the book and break one by one its seals, that is, he will unveil all the mysteries of our existence.
Today’s passage tells what happens after the breaking of the sixth seal. A great multitude that no one can count, people of every race, language, people and nation appear. All stand before the throne of the Lamb, wearing white robes, and having palm branches in their hands (v. 9). The white dress is a symbol of joy and innocence, and the palm trees are a sign of victory.
Who are these people? They are those who, in this world, have endured hardships and persecutions and gave their lives for others, as did the Lamb. People considered them failures, but to God they are winners (v. 14). They “never again will suffer hunger or thirst, or be burned by the sun or any scorching wind. For the Lamb… will be their shepherd… and God will wipe away their tears” (vv. 16-17).
In these verses there is a strange image: “The Lamb will be their shepherd.” How can a lamb be also a shepherd? Yet it is precisely this: Jesus has become a shepherd, a guide because, as a lamb, he was sacrificed, he gave his life for love.
This page has been written to encourage persecuted Christians to persevere with patience and firmness. What happened to Jesus, the Lamb is realized in them; if they follow him as one follows a shepherd, they will participate in his own victory.
The land of Israel is in large part mountainous and used for grazing sheep. Keepers of flocks were Abel, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David. It should not therefore cause consternation that there are recourses to images of pastoral life in the Bible. God is called “shepherd of Israel”: he leads his people like sheep, treats them with love and care, guides them toward abundant pastures and fresh springs of water (Ps 23:1; 80:2). Even the Messiah is announced by the prophets as a shepherd to shepherd Israel: “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 23:1-6; Ez 34).
Jesus will refer to these images when one day, descending from the boat, he sees a great crowd rushing on foot to listen to his word of hope. Mark says: “he had compassion on them for they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mk 6:33-34).
In John’s Gospel, Jesus presents himself as the expected shepherd (Jn 10:11,14), as the one who will lead the people along the path of righteousness and faithfulness to the Lord.
The fourth Sunday of Easter is called the Sunday of the Good Shepherd because, every year, the liturgy presents a passage from John, chapter 10, where Jesus himself is the true shepherd. The four verses that we read in the Gospel today are drawn from the final part of the speech of Jesus and they want to help us deepen the meaning of this biblical image.
We begin with a clarification: when we talk about Jesus the Good Shepherd, the first image that comes to mind is that of the Master who holds a lamb in his arms or on the shoulders. It is true: Jesus is the good shepherd who goes out of his way to search of the lost sheep, but this is the reproduction of the parable found in the Gospel of Luke (15:4-8). The good shepherd that John speaks of has nothing to do with this sweet and tender image. Jesus does not present himself as one who affectionately caresses the wounded lamb, but as the hard, strong man, determined to fight the bandits and the ferocious animals, as what David did by chasing the lion and the bear that tore a sheep away from the flock; he knocked them down and plucked the victim from their mouth (1 Sam 17:34-35). Jesus is the Good Shepherd because he is not afraid to fight until he gives his life for the sheep that he loves (Jn 10:11).
The first statement that he pronounces is very strong: my sheep—he says—they shall never perish; no one will ever steal them from me (v. 28). Their salvation is not guaranteed by their docility, their loyalty, but by his initiative, his courage, his gratuitous and unconditional love. This is the big announcement! This is the beautiful news that Easter announces and what a Christian believer must communicate to every person. Even to those who have it all wrong in life he must ensure: your miseries, your shortcomings, your choices of death will not be able to defeat the love of Christ.
The second image, that of the sheep, is to be clarified because it can provoke some discomfort. The flock following the “Good Shepherd is composed of who?” Some will perhaps spontaneously answer: lay people who meekly accept and practice all the norms established by the clergy. Pastors are therefore the church hierarchy, while sheep would be the ordinary faithful.
We make it clear: the only shepherd is Christ, because—as we pointed out in the second reading—he is the Lamb who has sacrificed his own life. His sheep are those who have the courage to follow him in this gift of life. The shepherd is then a Lamb that shares in all the fate of the flock.
There is another misconception that should be dissolved, to identify themselves with the flock of Christ. There are grey areas in the church who exclude themselves from the Kingdom of God because they thrive in sin, while there are huge margins, beyond the confines of the Church, which fall within the Kingdom of God because the Spirit is at work there. The action of the Spirit manifests itself in the impulse of the gift of life to the brother or sister: “The one who lives in love, lives in God and God in him” (1 Jn 4:16). Whoever, while not knowing Christ, sacrifices himself for the poor, practices justice, brotherhood, sharing of goods, hospitality, loyalty, sincerity, the rejection of violence, forgiveness of enemies, the commitment to peace, can be a disciple of the good shepherd. This should make so many Christians, who are wallowing in auto complacency that might eventually prove tragic illusions, attentive. The Shepherd may one day, unexpectedly say to some: “I do not know where you come from” (Lk 13:25).
The display of security, preconceived distrust against members of other religions and prejudices toward non-believers are still so deeply rooted and pernicious as the false irenicism.
How can people become members of the flock that follow Jesus? What happens to the sheep who are faithful to him? Today’s Gospel says that it is not we who take the initiative to follow him. He is the one who calls: “My sheep hear my voice and I know them and they follow me” (v. 27).
The disciples of Jesus live in this world, living among people. They hear so many calls and receive even misleading messages. There are many who pose as shepherds, that promise life, well-being, happiness and invite people to follow them. It is easy to be deceived by charlatans. Amidst many voices, how can one recognize the voice of the true Shepherd? It is necessary to accustom the ear. He who hears a person only for five minutes, and then for a year does not hear him any more, will find it difficult to distinguish the other’s voice in the crowd. He who hears the gospel only once a year, does not learn to recognize the voice of the Lord who speaks.
It is not easy to trust Jesus because he does not promise success, triumphs, victories, as do all the other shepherds. He asks for the gift of self, demands the renunciation of seeking one’s own advantage, demands the sacrifice of life. And yet—he assures—this is the only path that leads to eternal life (vv. 28-29). There are no shortcuts; who indicates other paths is cheating and leads to death.
The passage ends with the words of Jesus: “I and the Father are one” (v. 30). This somewhat of an abstract statement indicates the path to follow to achieve unity with God. It is necessary to become “one” with Christ. This means that one has to achieve unity of thoughts, intentions and actions with him.
This statement makes us reflect on the ministry of those who are called to “graze” the flock of Christ. Sometimes in the Christian community there is a certain tension between those who, with not very exact terms, are called: clergy and laity. Some say that the laity must be united with their “shepherds”; others say that these shepherds must be united with the people of God. Perhaps it is more correct to think that all the people of God, laity and clergy, together should follow the only shepherd who is Jesus and become, with him, “one” with the Father.