Saturday, May 06, 2017

Good Shepherd Sunday: 4th Sunday of Easter

So we have reached the mid-point of the Easter Season and come to the Lord’s Day unofficially called “Good Shepherd Sunday,” because every year at this time we read from John 10, the famous “Good Shepherd Discourse.”   For the most part, the Readings are focused around the idea of Jesus Christ as our divine Shepherd.

But what is a shepherd like?  In Western culture, shepherding can involve an conflicted relationship with the sheep.  Shepherds often drive sheep in different directions using dogs to intimidate them.  But in Eastern cultures, shepherds don’t “drive” the sheep, they lead them.  Dogs are not used.  The shepherd walks in front, and the sheep follow him, having learned to respond to his voice signals.  It is said that two shepherds can mix their flocks in the same pen overnight, and in the morning, one shepherd can extricate his entire flock from the mixed group simply by making his distinctive call.  It reminds us of Our Lord’s words in the Gospel, “My sheep know my voice.”  Thus, shepherding in the ancient Near East was a much more personal affair than in modern Western culture (think of the movie “Babe”).  It was really more akin to “sheep whispering.”

With that background, let’s delve into the Readings:

1.  Our First Reading is Acts 2:14a, 36-41:

Then Peter stood up with the Eleven,
raised his voice, and proclaimed:
"Let the whole house of Israel know for certain
that God has made both Lord and Christ,
this Jesus whom you crucified."

Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart,
and they asked Peter and the other apostles,
"What are we to do, my brothers?"
Peter said to them,
"Repent and be baptized, 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 made to you and to your children
and to all those far off,
whomever the Lord our God will call."
He testified with many other arguments, and was exhorting them,
"Save yourselves from this corrupt generation."
Those who accepted his message were baptized,
and about three thousand persons were added that day.

This Reading is one of the most important, pivotal passages in the history of salvation.  In my view, St. Luke’s statement that the crowds were “cut to the heart” is an important allusion to several Old Testament prophecies of the New Covenant.  First and foremost, Moses prophesied that a day would come far in the future when God would circumcise the heart of the people of Israel after bringing them back from the various places of their exile (Deut 30:6), and that is precisely what we see going on here in Acts 2, in which Luke has just mentioned that Jerusalem was filled with Israelites from every place in the known world (2:5-11). 

Moses’ prophecy of the circumcision of the heart is significant, because circumcision was a covenant-making ritual.  Therefore, “circumcision of the heart” could only refer to a new covenant, one that was initiated and confirmed not by an external, physical ritual, but by an internal act of God.  The “circumcision of the heart,” then, amounts to the infusion of the Holy Spirit into the hearts of believers, thus “circumcising” or removing the uncleanness of the heart.  

And so we see that in this passage, the crowds being “cut to the heart” is immediately connected to baptism and reception of the Holy Spirit.  These three realities: circumcision of heart, baptism, reception of the Spirit—are a cord of three strands that is not easily broken (Eccl. 4:12).   

Moses’ prophecy of the circumcised heart was taken up, with variation, by Jeremiah and Ezekiel as well.  Jeremiah speaks of a “new covenant” in which the “law will be written on their hearts” (see Jer 31:31-34).  I common way of writing in antiquity was to cut letters into clay tablets with a stylus, or into stone with a chisel, so the “writing of the law on the heart” can also have this cutting imagery that we see in Acts 2:37.  Ezekiel speaks of God taking out the “heart of stone” and giving Israel a “heart of flesh” (Ezek 36:26-27).  A “heart of flesh” is much easier to cut than a “heart of stone,” so when Peter’s listeners are “cut to the heart,” it may be an indication that God has already softened and transformed their “hearts of stone.”  Ezekiel associates this “new heart” with a “sprinkling of water” (36:25) and the reception of God’s Spirit: “I will put my spirit within you” (36:27), just as the cut heart and reception of the Spirit are associated here in Acts. 

So what we see in Acts 2 is a kind of culmination of the New Covenant.  Yes, in one sense the New Covenant was already initiated at the Last Supper; yet in another sense, it is not fully inaugurated until we have the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost.  This is the fulfillment of the prophecies of Moses, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.  It is not Christians who came up with the idea of a new covenant in the future, but rather Moses and the other prophets of Israel.  We are Christians not because we disbelieve the Old Testament, but because we believe the Old Testament is true, and that what it predicted has actually happened. 

P. Our Responsorial Psalm is Ps 23: 1-3a, 3b4, 5, 6:

R. (1) The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
In verdant pastures he gives me repose;
beside restful waters he leads me;
he refreshes my soul.
R. The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.
He guides me in right paths
for his name's sake.
Even though I walk in the dark valley
I fear no evil; for you are at my side.
With your rod and your staff
that give me courage.
R. The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.
You spread the table before me
in the sight of my foes;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
R. The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.
Only goodness and kindness follow me
all the days of my life;
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
for years to come.
R. The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.

This was one of the favorite passages of Scripture, together with the Song of Songs, for sacramental catechesis in the patristic period.  In this season of Easter, as we continue to meditate on the sacraments in solidarity with the newly baptized and confirmed, we see many types of the sacraments:

Besides restful waters he leads me,
He refreshes my soul.
These are the waters of baptism, that grant us rest from our sins, and “refreshes” (more literally, “restores”) our souls with divine life.

You spread the table before me
in the sight of my foes;
—This is the Eucharistic table, from which we eat and share in divine life, even in the midst of persecutions from our enemies in the present world.

you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
—We see in these images signs of confirmation and the Eucharistic cup, both of which convey to us the grace of the Holy Spirit.

The message is that Jesus shepherds us through the Sacraments.  As a convert to the Catholic faith, I have always been touched by the personal and even physical nature of the experience of Christ within the Church.  From the physical contact of one’s tongue with the Eucharist, to the touch of the bishops thumb when smearing oil, to the resting of the hand on the head for a blessing or absolution, one can say that through the sacraments we are in a kind of physical contact with Jesus, our good Shepherd, who loves not just our souls but our bodies as well.  It seems to me such a beautiful way in which Jesus, through his brothers conformed to him in Holy Orders, reaches out to care for each member of his body, each sheep, in a personal and individual way.  

2. Our Second Reading is 1 Pt 2:20b-25:

If you are patient when you suffer for doing what is good,
this is a grace before God.
For to this you have been called,
because Christ also suffered for you,
leaving you an example that you should follow in his footsteps.
He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.

When he was insulted, he returned no insult;
when he suffered, he did not threaten;
instead, he handed himself over to the one who judges justly.
He himself bore our sins in his body upon the cross,
so that, free from sin, we might live for righteousness.
By his wounds you have been healed.
For you had gone astray like sheep,
but you have now returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.

The Second Reading is working its way through 1 Peter week after week in the Easter Season, but on this week, the Lectionary makes a little exception and takes this Reading out of order—next week we will “backtrack” to 1 Peter 2:4-9.  The reason is obvious: the Lectionary wants to pick up the reference to Jesus as the “shepherd and guardian of your souls.”
This image of Jesus as the good shepherd was one of the most dearly beloved pictures of Jesus to the first Christians.  Long before the crucifix became employed as a Christian symbol, we find catacomb art depicting Jesus as the Good Shepherd.  One such famous ancient icon became the motif graphic for most editions of the Catechism.  

In this passage St. Peter encourages Christian to follow the example of Jesus Christ in the face of persecution.  Persecution is, in fact, the assumed “default state” of the Church in the New Testament, with times of peace and tranquility being exceptional rather than normative.  St. Peter draws heavily in this passage from the famous “Suffering Servant Song” of Isa 52:13–53:12.  Although St. Peter does not follow the wording or order exactly, we can see that his meaning in this passage is essentially an updating of the words of the ancient prophet:

5 But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed.  6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
Is. 53:7   He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth.

This was a passage we read only last month at the Good Friday service.  We notice the following shared themes: Christ’s passive acceptance of suffering like a lamb; the sheep motif generally; vicarious punishment; healing through punishment born by another.  

The one element St. Peter adds which is not clear in Isaiah is the idea of the Messiah being not only sacrificial lamb but also Shepherd.  Jesus is the paradoxical lamb/shepherd, who gathers back to himself the straying sheep.  Since he has been a “sheep,” he is sympathetic to our condition.  

G.  The Gospel Reading is Jn 10:1-10:

Jesus said:
"Amen, amen, I say to you,
whoever does not enter a sheepfold through the gate
but climbs over elsewhere is a thief and a robber.
But whoever enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.
The gatekeeper opens it for him, and the sheep hear his voice,
as the shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.
When he has driven out all his own,
he walks ahead of them, and the sheep follow him,
because they recognize his voice.
But they will not follow a stranger;
they will run away from him,
because they do not recognize the voice of strangers."
Although Jesus used this figure of speech,
the Pharisees did not realize what he was trying to tell them.

So Jesus said again, "Amen, amen, I say to you,
I am the gate for the sheep.
All who came before me are thieves and robbers,
but the sheep did not listen to them.
I am the gate.
Whoever enters through me will be saved,
and will come in and go out and find pasture.
A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy;
I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly."

The image of the shepherd of the people of Israel goes back to the ancient Near Eastern concept of the king as shepherd of his nation.  In Israel’s history, the shepherd-king motif was most of all associated with David, as Psalm 78 says:

Psa. 78:70 He chose David his servant, and took him from the sheepfolds;  71 from tending the ewes that had young he brought him to be the shepherd of Jacob his people, of Israel his inheritance.

Likewise, Ezekiel prophesied:

Ezek 34:22 I will save my flock, they shall no longer be a prey; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.  23 And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd.

When Jesus claims to be the Shepherd of Israel in this passage, he is claiming to be the fulfillment of the prophecy of Ezekiel, that a King from the line of David would return to rule Israel one day.  But Ezekiel spoke not just of David as Shepherd over Israel, but also God himself as their Shepherd:

Ezek 37:14 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD.

Perhaps there will be two shepherds, a divine one and a Davidic one?  But no, because Ezekiel insists:

Ezek 37:23 I will set up over them one shepherd …

Jesus thus solves in his person an apparent contradiction in Ezekiel 34, the famous prophecy of the new shepherd of Israel, because Ezekiel says both God and David will be shepherds of Israel, and yet there will be only one shepherd.  Two natures in one person, Jesus is both the divine and Davidic shepherd.

When Our Lord declares “all who came before me are thieves and robbers,” he may well be referring to the majority of those who had claimed leadership over Israel since the deposition of the last reigning son of David, Zedekiah, in 587 BC (see 2 Kings 25:7).  Many of these leaders had questionable if not outright legitimate pedigrees.  The Levite clan of the Maccabees had taken over in the mid-100s and set themselves up as kings of Israel, although they were not of the line of David.  Herod the Great, who was only half-Jewish, took over Israel by political manipulation of the Roman authorities, and established a dynasty that had even less legitimacy than the Maccabees.  Meanwhile, the high priesthood had been corrupted at least since 175 B.C., when the High Priest Onias III was ousted by political maneuvering and replaced first by his brother Jason and then by Menelaus, a Benjaminite (2 Macc 3:4; 4:23,27).  So in the lifetime of Our Lord, the kingship was held by pretenders, the High Priesthood was held by pretenders, and various false, self-proclaimed messiahs arose and led unsuccessful rebellions.  In the vacuum of religious leadership left by these self-serving competing claimants, the school of the Pharisees arose, which trained scholars in the law of Moses to teach the common people in the synagogues throughout the land.  But as well-meaning as the Pharisees were, they did not have any biblical claim to authority.  No prophets had ever promised that self-appointed scholars of the law would arise to save Israel in the last days.  All these false leaders, intent too often on enriching themselves at the expense of the people of Israel, may be whom Jesus  has in mind as the “thieves and robbers” who have come before him.

Nonetheless, the poor common folk of Israel knew that these pretenders were illegitimate and not the fulfillment of the prophecies.  Now Jesus of Nazareth, the true heir of David (Matt 1), had returned to shepherd his people, as Ezekiel had promised.

Jesus comes not to “kill, steal, and destroy,” but that they “may have life, and have it more abundantly.”  Another translation could be “I have come that they may have life, and have it excessively.”  This statement taps into a theme in the Gospel of John, that of the abundance that Jesus comes to provide.  This theme is announced in the first chapter of the Gospel, where it says of Jesus, “from his abundance we have all received, grace upon grace” (John 1:16).  It is visibly demonstrated in the abundance of wine at Cana (John 2) and the excessive supply of bread and fish on the mountain (John 6).  Jesus has come that his sheep may abound in life, experiencing a fullness unlike anything else. 

Too often we live the Christian life in a constrained way, thinking perhaps that the moral law of God puts “limits” on our lifestyle.  This is an incorrect way of thinking.  In reality, sin constrains our lifestyle and leads to enslavement (addiction) to various behaviors or pleasures that result in both physical and spiritual death.  The life that Jesus offers us is infused with meaning, with joy, with love, and with the divine presence.  It’s a kind of living by comparison with which anything else seems rather a kind of death than a kind of life.  True life begins with Jesus.  A life of dissipation and capitulation to our physical desires is actually a kind of living death.  Maybe that’s why zombie movies are so popular these days: folks actually feel like zombies, living an empty “life” even though they are spiritually dead.  Let’s pray that during this Easter Season we would understand the better that the life of sin is no life at all, and that the life in Christ is the beginning even now of eternal life. 

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