Lectionary commentary: fourth Sunday of Easter, year A
A reading from the Acts of the Apostles, 2:14. 36-41
Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 23:1-6. R/. v.1
A reading from the first letter of St. Peter, 2:20-25
A reading from the holy Gospel according to John, 10:1-10
The difficulty facing the preacher today is that by appointing this day as World Day of Prayer for Vocations (to priestly and religious life) an interpretation has been imposed on the assigned readings. This is especially true of the Gospel reading from Saint John. By implying that “the shepherd of the sheep” (John 10:2) and the sheep who hear the shepherd’s voice somehow relate to clergy and those they serve is to impose our concerns on the “Gospel of the Lord” appointed to be heard this day.
Further, if we agree that people are not sheep, we will be loathe to believe that the Gospels insist that they are. We must tread carefully through a meadow of metaphor and simile. The preacher will do well to realise that everyone in the community of the Church is called to proclaim the word of God and all who are baptised are anointed to gospel the poor, to create liberty for captives, to free those who are oppressed, and indeed to ensure that all flesh will see the salvation of God.
A reading from the Acts of the Apostles, 2:14. 36-41
Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them: "Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified."
Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” So those who received his word were baptised, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.
The word of the Lord.
The first reading today from Luke’s Acts is deluged with dignity.
The true identity of Jesus is proclaimed. It is God who is responsible for transforming crucifixion into life, for resurrecting a dead man for ever after to be Lord and Messiah. God has transformed crucifixion into life and thereby created a future for crucified humanity,
… for you and your children and for all who are afar off, everyone whom the Lord God calls to himself.
This Lord and Christ received the promise of the Holy Spirit from the Father (Acts 2:33). That Spirit has been poured out; it is that Holy Spirit that “you yourselves are seeing and hearing” (Acts 2:33). Peter’s words likewise create an immediate transformation:
Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”
Recall some sentences from the first pages of our Gospels. From St. Mark:
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.
From St. Matthew, words of John the Baptist and of Jesus:
Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."
From St. Luke:
… the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
And recall, too, other words:
John appeared, baptising in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins … and he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptised you with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.
I baptise you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
Even in the language of John’s Gospel:
Amen, Amen, I say to you, if one is not born out of water and Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of flesh is flesh, and that which is born of Spirit is spirit.
John 3:5-6 (my translation)
Long before our Gospels were written, St. Paul said as much:
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptised into one body— Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.
I Corinthians 12:12-13
The point is that what God promised, what Jesus accomplished through obedience to God, and what the Holy Spirit is appointed to create, has begun to transform the world.
The world is transformed by repentance. On that day, in the wake of Peter’s address, those who heard his words, were invited to respond: Repent! As many as did were transformed:
… those who received his word were baptised and there were added that day about three thousand souls.
Acts 2: 41
The first step into God’s world is repentance.
Given the fact that “repent”, “repentance”, “penance”, and “penitent” figure prominently in Christian religious conversation, and especially in preaching, the relative scarcity of the words in the New Testament is a surprise. The fact that most of the occurrences of these words are in the writings of St. Luke is likewise remarkable.
The verb “to repent” occurs nine times in Luke’s Gospel and in every case there is an insistence that repentance is the essential first step on the path to God. A few examples:
… unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.
… there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.
If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.
We can deduce from these quotations that repentance is utterly necessary, that it is related to sin, and that, repentance demands forgiveness. Repentance, however, is not an end but a beginning:
… he [John the Baptist] went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Bear fruits in keeping with repentance.
I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.
At the end of his Gospel the Risen Lord opened the minds of the eleven and those who were with them gathered together and he reveals to them vocation of the Messiah. These are the last words the Lord speaks to his friends in the Gospel of Luke. They are defining words, each sentence directing Luke’s readers and hearers to the whys and the wherefores of his vocation from God. Notice how carefully Luke constructs these final sentences. First, Luke points to where God reveals all that must be fulfilled:
These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.
Of course, these matters in the Scriptures must explained:
Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
These sentences reveal the vocation of the Messiah but they also reveal the vocation of the eleven and those who were with them:
You are witnesses of these things.
Thus repentance is the beginning of engagement and commitment. These witnesses may be sent out “as lambs in the midst of wolves” (Luke 10:3). These last sentences constitute the very essence of the Church that Luke will present when he takes up his pen to write the second volume of his story. There are many insights here as to what the Church must be in every age and in every place. But there is only one solemn injunction, one absolute necessity:
… that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all the nations …
What is enjoined on the Jesus people in the last words of Luke’s Gospel is enjoined by Peter on all who heard him on Pentecost Day:
Repent and be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Consider these three imperatives:
Repent: For Luke this means to turn into someone new. It means living the profile Jesus declared in the Nazareth synagogue. It is to live the parables that Jesus spoke, to find your identity in Luke’s Beatitudes (Luke 6:20-23), to love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and to pray for those who abuse you.
Be baptised: To be baptised is to be enlisted into the Jesus project. For particulars, see the job description revealed in the Nazareth synagogue (Luke 4:18-19).
Receive the gift of the Spirit: To know that repentance, that turning into a Jesus image, cannot be sustained without the outreach of a divine hand and the touch of a gentle Spirit. To live conscious of heavenly empowerment is to know that,
the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.
I Peter 5:10-11
Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 23:1-6. R/. v.1
R/. The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul. R/.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name's sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me. R/.
To pray Psalm 23 it necessary first to pray Psalm 22. The opening line of that psalm is the prayer Jesus prayed:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Perhaps it is only if one stands at the foot of the cross and listens to the prayer of a dying man who served his Lord that one can retreat to the solace of the Lord who is my shepherd.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
The Lord is my shepherd?
Psalm 23 comes from a long poetic tradition of imagining God shepherding humanity with the diligence and tenderness of a good shepherd. The image is often used of earthly kings and potentates in the (forlorn) hope that they might rule with the gentleness of a diligent shepherd. Psalm 23 has a place in many hearts because it makes its way through the everyday care with which the good shepherd cares for the flock. No matter what dangers may come as the flock moves from one pasture to the next, no harm shall come.
At the root of all good tending is presence: the shepherd is there with the flock: for you are with me. It is the abiding, unwavering presence that ensures grass meadows, quiet waters, and no fear even in valleys of darkness.
The constant presence of the shepherd is as if one were every day in the Temple, safe if God’s presence “all the days of my life”.
But, of course, if we have prayed Psalm 22, that is, if we have lived, we know that there are dark days …
A reading from the first letter of St. Peter, 2:20-25
For what credit is it [in the sight of God] if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
The word of the Lord.
The exiles in the First Letter of St Peter are more likely to have prayed Psalm 22 and, for sure, Psalm 23 was not their Morning Offering. The community of Christians addressed in the letter were probably exiled from their homeland. Certainly, if that was not the case, then by becoming Christians they had forsaken the paganism of their neighbours and their former friends were now strangers. Inevitably, some of these new Jesus people would have been slaves and their wellbeing concerned whoever wrote this letter. Our sensitivities may be severely tested as we listen. The sentence before the beginning of today’s reading is this:
Slaves, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust.
I Peter 2:18
Slaves are encouraged to put up with beatings if they have deserved them. But even if they have done no wrong, beatings must be borne for “this is a gracious thing in the sight of God”.
By way of explanation the writer seems to have taken refuge in a vision of the Suffering Servant from the Book of Isaiah, a text familiar to Christians who pray the Good Friday service. You will recall these lines:
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
The writer may have had the Isaiah text in mind but it is impossible to believe that it is at all relevant to business of slavery.
Perhaps we need to listen to today’s words from I Peter with one caution in mind: the writer fails to mention the responsibilities before God and humanity of the masters of the slaves.
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke, 10:1-10
Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” This figure of speech Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd.
The Gospel of the Lord.
To understand today’s reading from the Gospel according to John we must appreciate the context. We must remind ourselves that chapter divisions in our Bibles are an invention by scholars at the university of Paris toward the end of the 12th century. Chief among them was an academic from Lincolnshire, Stephen Langton by name, who became Archbishop of Canterbury (1207 - 1228) and who wrote the Magna Carta. A 16th century printer, Robert Estienne (1503 - 1559) published a Latin Bible in 1527 that for the first time included verse divisions. The work of these scholars has made reading the Bible much easier. Jesus would have been thankful for their work. When his disciples began to pluck the heads of grain while walking through a field on the Sabbath some Pharisees complained at the outrage. Jesus came to the defence of his disciples:
Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?
Thanks to Langton and Estienne, I would have said: Look up the First Book of Samuel 21:1-6. I might have added that Deuteronomy 23:24-25 provides some useful clarification.
The point is that we must not be led astray by the neat chapter divisions in our Bibles. The ancient manuscripts are just slabs of text without even full stops. There is no discussion in John’s Gospel entitled The Good Shepherd. There is a fierce controversy on the true identity of Jesus that runs for several pages. In truth, the whole Gospel is about that question. Recall the last words of John’s text:
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
The Good Shepherd
But the particular fierce argument that concerns us today begins I think at 7:10 - the matter is debated among scholars - during the Jewish Feast of Booths. This eight-day celebration was called Tabernacles, in Hebrew Sukkoth (Tents), a harvest festival commemorating God’s care of the people as they made their way through the desert from Egypt. It also looked forward to the gathering of all the nations in Jerusalem to acknowledge and worship God. John’s Gospel places begins this fierce and at times unseemly argument about the middle of the feast” of Tabernacles and it ends (four chapters later) on the Feast of Dedication (John 10:22). Unless we follow these bitter exchanges we will never know what is meant when Jesus says,
I am the good shepherd.
How is it that this man has learning when he has never studied?
That is the incendiary question that begins the bitter argument. Like manys an argument, this one begins with questions and contrary opinions:
The Jews were looking for him at the feast, and saying, “Where is he?” And there was much muttering about him among the people. While some said, “He is a good man,” others said, “No, he is leading the people astray.” Yet for fear of the Jews no one spoke openly of him.
Jesus denies that his teaching is in any way based on human study or, indeed, from his own learning. His teaching is from “the one who sent me” (7:16):
My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me. If anyone's will is to do God's will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority. The one who speaks on his own authority seeks his own glory; but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and in him there is no falsehood.
The crowd have enough of this:
You have a demon!
And so the bitter argument goes on and on. The chief priests and the Pharisees (a marriage of convenience) send officers to arrest him. Mysteriously Jesus hits back:
Where I am you cannot come!
Many of the people believe in him (7:31) and some said,
This really is the Prophet.
while others said,
This is the Messiah.
But some clever clogs, city types, point out that no prophet arises from Galilee (see the paragraph 7:45 down to 7:52). But Jesus moves the debate away from Galilee to an altogether larger stage:
I am the light of the world.
Given that during the feast of Tabernacles the Temple area was flooded with light, this was provocative and the argument grew fiercer. Jesus claims that he has been sent by the Father and refuses to explain. Claiming to be “from above”, he confuses everyone with constant reference to “the Father”.
Some believe. Some are bewildered. Many point out that “Abraham is our father” (8:33 and 39), indeed, “we have one Father—even God” (8:41). Jesus denies the claim and in a very heated and ugly exchange he makes a counter claim:
If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father's desires.
(We really need to think about this. While it is clear that the Gospel according to St John is a meditation on the meaning of Jesus and not an historical account of the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth, when we listen in Church to a passage of John’s Gospel, we declare “The Gospel of the Lord”. We cannot pretend to leave out the bad bits. We must realise that down through the ages such sentences formed how the Church regarded Jewish people and how Christians treated the brothers and sisters of Jesus.)
Matters deteriorate even further. “The Jews” again respond that Jesus is possessed by a demon (8:52). Jesus claims that Abraham himself rejoiced “that he would see my day” (8:56). But how could someone who was not even fifty years old claim to know Abraham?
There are just two more sentences in the long argument about the identity of the man who was teaching in God’s Temple. Jesus said to them,
Ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν,
πρὶν Ἀβραὰμ γενέσθαι
Amen, Amen, I say to you,
before Abraham was,
The answer came quickly:
So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the Temple.
I AM WHO I AM
To convince the enslaved Hebrew people that it was indeed the “the God of our fathers” who was determined to free them, they would surely ask Moses God’s name. So God revealed his name to Moses:
I AM WHO I AM.
It is this identity that Jesus claims and that claim is the end of the argument:
So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus his himself and went out of the Temple.
But the stone throwers do not have the last word. The last word belongs to the blind man.
… and he worshipped him.
The story of the blind man confirms the truth of the matter. It exposes those who claim to see as the truly blind. Those who come to believe and to worship have sight given them by God.
Now John’s readers and hearer know who he is, it is time to disclose why “the word became flesh and dwelt among us”. To do so it is necessary to search the Scriptures and, in this instance, especially to consider Ezekiel the prophet.
Ezekiel: Israel's Watchman
The word of the Lord came to Ezekiel and commanded him “to prophesy against the shepherds of Israel” (Ezekiel 34:2). The divine complaint is that “the shepherds of Israel” have been feeding themselves:
Thus says the Lord God: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them.
The Lord God has a solution. There will be a new shepherd, a good shepherd. In future God will not entrust shepherding to mortals:
For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country. I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured … I will feed them in justice.
And so it came to pass that there came a shepherd, one who stands at the door of the sheepfold guarding the comings and goings against wolves and the like. A good shepherd who knows his sheep and who is known by them. A good shepherd who is prepared to lay down his life for the sheep.
Dr. Joseph O’Hanlon.
PS. Of course, bitter controversies about identity and purpose, then as now, might be be avoided if some straight talking prevailed:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.