ACTA COMMENTARY 
OUR SUNDAY LECTIONARY
FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER  
YEAR B: YEAR OF MARK
 
GOOD SHEPHERD SUNDAY      Download >>> Fourth Sunday of Easter - Year B
 
The Fourth Sunday of Easter is called Good Shepherd Sunday because the Gospel reading portrays Jesus as the Good Shepherd.  It is customary on this day, in our reflection on the Gospel reading, to direct our thoughts to vocations to priesthood and religious life.  Jesus who proclaims ‘I am the Good Shepherd’ is seen as a model for all who are called to undertake shepherding rôles in every church community throughout the world.  Today couragement to serve in such callings will find its way into homilies and congregations will be urged to pray for vocations.   
It is imperative, therefore, to identify what Jesus meant by his claim to be, not a good shepherd, but the good shepherd.  And since those of us who have been preserved by the LORD unto old age and grey hairs know that prayers for vocations have been offered for as long as we can remember—and then some—we may ask why God hasn’t answered them.   If Jesus is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep, why are we amalgamating parishes, closing parishes, and requiring priests to work into their eighties and beyond?  If, as the reading today from the first letter of John proclaims, we are God’s children, why are we left without shepherds?  Why are so many Christian people, the children of God, orphans?  Or, to put it another way, sheep without a shepherd? 
 
There is another question that needs asking:  why are parents willing to pray for vocations to priesthood as long as God does not come knocking at their door?
 
Yet another question:  why are bishops reluctant to talk seriously about these matters with the people who matter?
 
 
THE READINGS
 
A reading from the Acts of the Apostles                                   4:8-12 
Responsorial Psalm                         Psalm 117:1. 8-9. 21-23. 26. 2829.  R/ v.22  
A reading from the first letter of St John                                   3:1-2
A reading from the holy Gospel according to John            10:11-18
 
 
A reading from the Acts of the Apostles                                   4:8-12 
 
Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a crippled man, by what means this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead— by him this man is standing before you well. This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we will indeed  be saved.  
                                                                                     Acts 4:8-12
 
The first reading today again presents Peter boldly proclaiming the Stone that the builders rejected.   Having healed a lame beggar, Peter incited the wrath of “the priests and the captain of the temple and the Sadducees” and they had Peter and John arrested and put into prison.  The next day Annas the High priest and Caiaphas and the whole high priestly clan put them on trial.  The question put to the accused was this:
 
By what power or by what name did you do this? Acts 4:7
 
It is important to pay attention to the details of the story of healing the lame beggar that gave rise to the arrest (see Acts 3:1-10) and its consequence.  This is Jesus all over again.   When Jesus healed, he was accused by the same powerful people of healing in the devil’s name (read Mark 3:22-27, for example).  Peter’s reply to the charges is direct: we heal in the name of Jesus.  And why?  It is because God has authenticated the life and ministry of Jesus by raising him from the dead.  Peter reminds the powerful in court that they are the people who crucified this Jesus of Nazareth.  Then he goes for their holier-than-thou jugular:
 
This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you - the builders! - which has become the cornerstone.
 
Peter quotes Psalm 118:22 (117 in Catholic reckoning) against the very people who did Jesus to death, the very people who are supposed to know the mind of God.  But Peter is far more subtle and incisive than would appear on the surface.  The fisherman from Galilee has turned into a very learned theologian.   Again we might ask, what changed Simon into Peter? 
 
Psalm 118, which Peter quotes, is a victory hymn, celebrating the return from the Babylonian exile (c.537 B.C.) and the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem.  It is a song most likely sung in a procession into the newly built Temple, with all the joy of a victory parade.  A bit like Corpus Christi used to be.  God has delivered us!  God has come back to us!  Open the gates!  Sing a new song in our own land:
 
Open to me the gates of righteousness,
that I may enter through them
and give thanks to the LORD.
 This is the gate of the LORD;
 the righteous shall enter through it.
 I thank you that you have answered me
 and have become my salvation.
 The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone.
 This is the LORD’S doing;
it is marvellous in our eyes.
 This is the day that the LORD has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Psalm 118 (117):19-24 
Peter is telling them that the cornerstone of the Temple is no longer the home of God’s Presence.  The Temple no longer has God’s support.  Jesus is now the Real Presence,  the fulfilment of all that the Temple stood for and supported.  Its day is done.  It has served its purpose.  The God of my salvation has moved from Temple to Cross. God’s purpose for the Temple has been achieved and that purpose is brought to completion in that “Jesus of Nazareth, whom you crucified, God raised from among the dead”.   There is no other name under heaven, no other Presence given to the world “by which we must be saved”.
 
How did the fisherman, the slow learner, the one who couldn’t watch one hour, the one who denied, the one who cursed, the one who swore he did not know the man, - how did he come to this?  How did he become the teacher of priests and potentates:
 
The answer is above, in the first line of today’s first reading. 
 
 
Responsorial Psalm                         Psalm 117:1. 8-9. 21-23. 26. 2829.  R/ v.22  
 
It is a pity that the Lectionary doesn’t ask us to sing the whole song.  For it is a hymn which sings of God’s goodness.  The “I” in the song is the whole people of Israel who were brought from under the heel of Babylonian oppression back to the tiny province of Judah (smaller than Nottinghamshire where I live), and were empowered by God to rebuild their city and its Temple.  We know they could not sing the LORD’S song in a land of strangers, sitting by the rivers of Babylon  (Psalm 137).  But the LORD is good.  The LORD’S steadfast love endures forever and so he has seen his people safely home.  It is worth singing the whole song:
 
Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
for his steadfast love endures forever!
 Let Israel say,
“His steadfast love endures forever.”
 Let the house of Aaron say,
“His steadfast love endures forever.”
 Let those who fear the Lord say,
“His steadfast love endures forever.”
 Out of my distress I called on the Lord;
the Lord answered me and set me free.
 The Lord is on my side; I will not fear.
What can man do to me?
 The Lord is on my side as my helper;
I shall look in triumph on those who hate me.
 It is better to take refuge in the Lord
 than to trust in man.
 It is better to take refuge in the Lord
 than to trust in princes.
 All nations surrounded me;
in the name of the Lord I cut them off!
 They surrounded me, surrounded me on every side;
in the name of the Lord I cut them off!
 They surrounded me like bees;
they went out like a fire among thorns;
in the name of the Lord I cut them off!
 I was pushed hard, so that I was falling,
but the Lord helped me.
 The Lord is my strength and my song;
 he has become my salvation.
 Glad songs of salvation
are in the tents of the righteous:
 “The right hand of the Lord does valiantly,
 the right hand of the Lord exalts,
the right hand of the Lord does valiantly!”
 I shall not die, but I shall live,      
and recount the deeds of the Lord.
 The Lord has disciplined me severely,
but he has not given me over to death.
 Open to me the gates of righteousness,
that I may enter through them
and give thanks to the Lord.
 
This is the gate of the Lord;
 the righteous shall enter through it.
 I thank you that you have answered me
 and have become my salvation.
 The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone.
 This is the Lord's doing;
it is marvellous in our eyes.
 
This is the day that the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.
 Save us, we pray, O Lord!
O Lord, we pray, give us success!
 
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!
We bless you from the house of the Lord.
 The Lord is God,
and he has made his light to shine upon us.
Bind the festal sacrifice with cords,
up to the horns of the altar!
 You are my God, and I will give thanks to you;
you are my God; I will extol you.
 Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
for his steadfast love endures forever!
Psalm 118
 
There is a special Hebrew word which here is translated “steadfast love”.   It is hesed, one word that takes two English words to translate adequately.  Hesed does not mean love.  It means the only love that endures forever, no beginning, no end.  The translation we have today in the Responsorial Psalm is wrong because it fails to impress on us that God’s love never leaves us, never can leave us, never wants to leave us.  No matter what our sins, be they black as pitch, God’s steadfast love will transform blackness into dazzling white, and see us safely home. 
 
Read Psalm 136.  It is a song entirely devoted to showing the spread of God’s steadfast love throughout creation up to the very day the poet wrote his psalm.  Twenty-six times we are told that God’s steadfast love endures forever.  Psalm 136 is a psalm for slow learners.  
 
A reading from the first letter of St John                                 3:1-2
 
See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.                              First Letter of John 3:1-2
 
 
The first reading and the Responsorial Psalm have spoken to us of God’s steadfast love and God’s commitment to see us safely home.  The reading from the first letter of St John teaches much the same but the context is very different.  
 
We need to go round the houses a bit in order to come to an understanding of the circumstances that led to this letter.  Why was it written and to whom?
 
We must begin by noting that this letter is not really a letter to all the churches, as it appears to be.  There are  three letter purporting to written by John but these are better described as internal memos. They are communications to a particular kind of Christian church that has long passed away.  The Christians who created John’s Gospel and the three letters bearing St John’s name lived a very introspective faith with its own understanding of Jesus and, indeed, its own vocabulary.  You will surely notice this if you compare the first three Gospels with that of John.  There are no parables in John’s Gospel.  There is nothing like the Sermon on the Mount.  No one is called an apostle.  There is no Lord’s Supper.  There is no agony in the garden.  The disciples do not run away.  Jesus and Pilate engage in a long theological discussion before Jesus goes to his death. There is no Simon to help carry the cross.  Quite emphatically we are told that Jesus carries his own cross.  There is no mockery of the man on the cross.  His death is more a coronation than a crucifixion.
 
John’s Gospel is famous for appealing for unity.  Consider the words of Jesus spoken to his Father as his mission on earth is nearing completion: 
“I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you. For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them. And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.                                                                                                         John 17:8-11
 
I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.  
John 17:20-21
 
Now you don’t need to go on and on about unity unless your problem is disunity.  The scourge rupturing these rather esoteric Christians was fragmentation.  That is why in the Gospel and in the three letters that are the remains of these Christians the key word is love:  Love one another as I have loved you (John 15:12).  The word “love” occurs 26 times in John’s Gospel and a startling 42 times in the three letters.    Love may make the world go round but it seems to have been fragile in these early Christians whose meditations on Jesus will nonetheless forever enrich the churches.  But their inability to “remain in his love” led to their disappearance from the Christian story. 
 
As we listen to the thoughts of these intense Christians, we who have inherited so much from them must be on our guard.  In-fighting and disruption destroy the Christian family.  In the end, these somewhat maverick Christians were right.  The first duty is to love one another.  It is a messy business.
 
 A reading from the holy Gospel according to John           10:11-18
 
 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. 
I know my own and my own know me, 
just as the Father knows me 
and I know the Father; 
and I lay down my life for the sheep. 
 
And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. 
I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. 
So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 
For this reason the Father loves me, 
because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. 
No one takes it from me, 
but I lay it down of my own accord. 
I have authority to lay it down, 
and I have authority to take it up again. 
This charge I have received from my Father.
                                       The Gospel of the LORD.    John 10:11-18
 
 
The tragedy is that Catholics do not read the Bible.  The tragedy is that, after centuries of treating the Bible with suspicion, centuries of praying for “perfidious Jews”, we have been very slow to change.  The Vatican Council (1962-1965) insisted that the Bible must be at the heart of Catholic faith and we have our Lectionary to help Catholics to know their Bible.  But because we have clergy who are unfamiliar with Sacred Scripture, and do not feel at home in its pages, we have not seen an upsurge in Bible reading and Bible understanding.  To be sure, more Bibles are purchased (mainly New Testaments), but improvement in biblical literacy has made little progress.  
That is why the Gospel of today’s Mass will cause difficulty for preacher and congregation.  For to understand what is being claimed by Jesus you need a reach back into the depths of Jewish Scriptures, into the Hebrew Bible, that is, into what we call the Old Testament.  Priests seldom preach on the first reading, in spite of the fact that the first readings were chosen to dovetail with the Gospel readings.  During Ordinary Time (that is the Sundays and weeks of the year that fall outside such seasons such as Advent, Lent and Eastertide) the first reading is always from the Old Testament.  In the Introduction to the Lectionary, those who read it learn that the first reading is intended to elucidate the Gospel reading. Therefore effectively to fulfil the demands of the Lectionary, a comprehensive knowledge of the whole of Scripture is essential. 
 
Careful attention to the images that human language uses to describe God in the Bible of the Jewish people will illuminate such language when it crops up in the Christian New Testament.   For example, the title “king” occurs 2,315 times in the Bible.  Most of these references are to human kings, such as King David and King Solomon.   But in their prayers God’s people frequently referred to God as their ultimate and true King.  Some lines from the prayer book we have inherited from our Jewish brothers and sisters: 
 
The LORD is King forever and ever                      Psalm 10:16
 
Lift up your heads, O gates!
and be lifted up, O ancient doors,
that the King of Glory may come in.
Who is this King of Glory?
The LORD, strong and mighty,
The LORD mighty in battle!
… Who is this King of Glory?
The LORD of Hosts,
He is the King of Glory!                                          Psalm 24:7-10
 
For God is the King of all the earth;
Sing a prayer of praise!                                              Psalm 47.7
 
I will praise you, my God and King,
And bless your name forever and ever.               Psalm145.1 
 
 
What we see here is that a human term for one in supreme authority being given to God.  For our Jewish ancestors in faith God is our true King.  But please note that this transfer is not merely poetic.  It is an act of faith.  Kings not only exercise power.  They are expected to exercise care for their people.  The have the duty to promote justice, to act rightly, and to have compassion when compassion is called for.  To declare God to be our Ling is to declare that only God can truly fulfil what kingship demands.  It is to declare that God who made us knows us best and knows best how to care for us.  
 
Now listen to this:
And they bound Jesus and led him away and delivered him over to Pilate.  And Pilate asked him,
 
“Are you the King of the Jews?”
and he answered him,
“You have said so”.                                        Mark 15:1-2
 
 Throughout his trial Jesus is mocked and the title King of the Jews is thrown in his face.  The soldiers deck him out in a mockery of royal dress.  The charge against him is nailed above him on the cross:  “The King of the Jews”.
 
What is all that about?
 
The answer is that names and titles given to God in the Old Testament are given to Jesus in the New Testament.  For example, consider,
 
…   The LORD will be your everlasting light,
and your God will be your glory.
Your sun shall no more go down,
nor your moon withdraw itself;
for the LORD will be your everlasting light,
and your days of mourning shall be ended …
 
and compare it with these words spoken by Jesus,
 
As long as I am in the world, 
I am the light of the world.                                 John 9:5
 
So, to cut to the chase, when we hear Jesus claim, “I am the good shepherd”, we are obliged to ask where did this come from, and what does the image mean in the ancient Scriptures which inspire the faith of Jewish people.  That way we will discover what it meant to Jesus and what it means for us.
 
It is always instructive to start with people’s prayers.  Psalm 23 is probably the best known psalm.  It is a comfortable prayer, the prayer of one for whom life has not cast a troubled shadow.  It sounds like the prayer of the rich, not so much of the poor.  But it does express a contentment that ,of all shepherding, God’s shepherding is safest and best:
 
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.
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.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
                                          forever.                           Psalm 23
 While Psalm 23 is, I think, a comfortable psalm for the comfortable,  it is based on firm faith:  God is our best shepherd.  It is to the prophets we must go to discover the profound instinct that compels them to declare that it is God who is shepherd of his people:
 
“Behold your God!”
Behold, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
behold, his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
He will tend his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms;
he will carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead those that are with young.
Isaiah 40:11
 
For who is like me?
What shepherd can stand before me?
Jeremiah 49.19
 
But it is the prophet Ezekiel who provides the deepest mediation on God as the Good Shepherd.   According to the First Book of Samuel, at God’s instruction,  the prophet Samuel anointed Saul as King of God’s people and then he anointed David, a boy-shepherd, as king.   For God said to David,
 
You shall be a shepherd of my people Israel.
2 Kings 5:2
 
However neither David, nor Solomon, nor the most of those kings who came after them lived up to expectations.  Indeed they behaved as the kings of neighbouring peoples and were tyrants rather than shepherds.  It is against this sorry corruption of what God had intended that the prophet Ezekiel, inspired by God, castigates the kings of God’s people:
 
The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, 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. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.
Ezekiel 34:1-6
 
So God determines that enough is enough.   What is needed is direct rule.  If God wants the best shepherding, then God will have to do it himself: 
 
Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: As I live, declares the LORD God, surely because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild beasts, since there was no shepherd, and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep, therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD.                 
Thus says the Lord God, Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require my sheep at their hand and put a stop to their feeding the sheep. No longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, that they may not be food for them.                                 Ezekiel 34:7-10
 
 
Thus Ezekiel looks to the day that God will withdraw the mandate he gave to the kings and take back shepherding responsibilities to himself:
 
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, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.
 
  By claiming to be the Good Shepherd, Jesus is claiming to be the one who ushers God’s good shepherding into our world.  The mocking priests spoke more than they knew:
 
So also the chief priests with the scribes mocked him to one another, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself.  Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe.”                                  Mark 15:31-32
 
The Christ is true King, exercising total care of all who are lost.  And who isn’t lost?  If you belong to the 99 who have no need of God’s shepherding, then fine.  The rest of us are glad of the shepherding policy of the Good Shepherd:
 
          For the Son of Man has come
to seek and to save that which is lost.         Luke 19:10
 
We learned the truth of the matter back in John 4:42:  we know  that this indeed the Saviour of the world.
 
The disclosure of the identity of Jesus will advance another step in next Sunday’s readings.
Joseph O’Hanlon
 
 
 

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