Acts 13:14, 43-52; Rv 7:9, 14b-17; Jn 10:27-30
Introduction: The fourth Sunday of Easter, known as Good Shepherd Sunday, is also the “World Day of Prayer for Vocations.” The Scripture lessons for this day concern the role of the shepherds of God’s flock in the Church. Each year on this Sunday, we reflect on the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd who devotedly and kindly takes care of his flock. One pastor recently made the joking remark that some people think that their pastor works only on Sundays! This is obviously untrue. Exactly what responsibilities does God give a pastor and what does God expect of him besides saying Mass and preaching? The answer to the question lies in the title “pastor,” which means shepherd. A shepherd leads, feeds, nurtures, comforts, corrects, and protects his flock—responsibilities that belong to every Church leader. The earliest Christians saw Jesus as the fulfillment of the ancient Jewish dream of the Good Shepherd, Who also wished to include the Gentiles as part of God’s flock.
Homily starter anecdote: “Who’s running the Church, you or the Holy Spirit?” Here is an anecdote that perfectly conveys the humble spirit of Pope St. John XXIII as a good shepherd. On the evening when he announced the opening of the Second Vatican Council — the first one since 1870 — he couldn’t sleep. Finally, he called himself to order: “Angelo, why aren’t you sleeping? Who’s running the Church, you or the Holy Spirit? So, sleep.” And he did. Prior to his being elected Pope, Angelo Roncalli had served as a clerical diplomat in Bulgaria, Turkey, and Greece; as Papal Nuncio in Paris; and as Patriarch of Venice. All this training helped him deal with social problems in society and in the Church. While still an Archbishop, he noted: “Wherever I go, I pay more attention to what we have in common than to what separates us.” Pope St. John XXIII began his mission by promising to be “a good shepherd.” He brought a real revolution to the Apostolic Palace by getting rid of the three prescribed genuflections in private audiences and by his impromptu conversations with workers and gardeners on the streets of Vatican City. He was the first Pope in history “to pay tribute to the part played by women in public life and to the growing awareness of their human dignity.” Best of all, by convening the Second Vatican Council, Pope St. John XXIII, led by the Holy Spirit, set in motion a spirit of reform that continues to our day. In September of 2000, this son of Italian peasants was beatified by Pope St. John Paul II; he was canonized by Pope Francis on April 27, 2014.
Scripture lessons summarized: Today’s first reading describes how Paul and Barnabas opted to listen to the voice of Jesus the Good Shepherd and follow him, and how, like their Master, they were rebuffed and rejected when they tried to share the Good News of salvation. It also suggests that the sympathy of the early Christians for the Gentiles caused a rupture with Judaism. Today’s Responsorial Psalm (Ps 100) reminds us that “…the Lord is God: He made us, His we are – His people, the flock He tends.” The second reading, taken from the book of Revelation, depicts Jesus as both the glorified Lamb and the Shepherd. John’s vision encourages his readers with the assurance that every person who has ever followed Christ and led others to him and who has suffered rejection and persecution will also know the unending joy of victory and have a share in everlasting life. The Gospel text offers us both comfort and great challenge. The comforting message is that no one can snatch the sheep out of Jesus’ Father’s hands. The challenge is that pastors and lay people alike should be good shepherds to those entrusted to their care.
The first reading: Acts 13:14, 43-52, explained: Paul and Barnabas were on their first missionary journey to Asia Minor (present day Turkey). On the Sabbath, Paul and Barnabas entered the synagogue at Antioch in Pisidia where they were invited to give a word of exhortation to the people. They explained that since Christ had been rejected by the Jews, Christians were obliged to preach the Gospel to all the nations, thus emphasizing the universal mission of Christianity. In other words, since the Jews had rejected the word of God, it was being offered to the Gentiles. But those Jews in Antioch who opposed the idea of preaching to the Gentiles got enough of a following to expel the apostles from their territory. Nevertheless, Paul and Barnabas remained faithful to the Gospel that Jesus had revealed. They “were filled with joy and the Holy Spirit” and continued to preach to the Gentiles who welcomed them with delight (v. 48). The mission of the Church is indeed a continuation of the ministry of salvation begun by Jesus. Is the seed of the Gospel still being sown to the ends of the earth? Are the poor, the blind, the deaf, the lame, the hungry, the thirsty, the lost and the imprisoned still the primary focus of our service?
The second reading: Rev 7:9, 14-17, explained: The book of Revelation, written for the encouragement of the persecuted Christians, depicts Jesus as both the slain and glorified Lamb and the Good Shepherd. In the latter role, he protects and refreshes his flock when they suffer persecution. John has a vision of all the sheep, representing the universal Church — people “from every nation, race, people, and tongue” — rescued by the Good Shepherd. The Lamb will shepherd and shelter those who, with his help, win through. He will feed them well and will wipe “away every tear from their eyes.” The essence of the vision is that Christ in his glorified humanity will have the chief place in Heaven, and that all rational creatures will sing his praises forever. John’s visions promised his readers that Jesus, the Passover Lamb, would shepherd them, providing them with shelter, protection and safe passage to the life-giving waters of eternity (Psalms 23; 80; 35:10; Isaiah 40:11; Ezekiel 34:23; Jeremiah 2:13).
Gospel exegesis: The context: It was December, wintertime, probably the time of the Jewish Hanukkah feast (the Feast of Dedication), which commemorated the triumph of the Jewish commander Judas Maccabaeus over the Syrian leader Antiochus IV Epiphanes in 165 B. C. Jesus was walking in the Temple on the east side, which offered protection against the cold winds from the desert. The Jews had gathered around him. They were not sure whether or not he was the promised Messiah because there were many such wandering preachers and healers in those days. Hence, they asked him directly whether he was the Christ. Instead of giving them an equally direct answer, Jesus claimed that he was the Good Shepherd and explained to them his role.
Shepherds in the Old Testament: In the Old Testament, the image of the Shepherd is often applied to God as well as to the leaders of the people. The book of Exodus represents Yahweh several times as a Shepherd. The prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel compare Yahweh’s care and protection of His people to that of a shepherd. “He is like a shepherd feeding his flock, gathering lambs in his arms, holding them against His breast and leading the mother ewes to their rest” (Is 40:11). Ezekiel represents God as a loving Shepherd who searches diligently for the lost sheep. Psalm 23 is David’s famous picture of God as The Good Shepherd: “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” (RSV, 2nd Catholic Edition). The prophets often used harsh words to scold the selfish and insincere shepherds (or leaders) of their day. Jer 23:1: “Doom for the shepherds who allow the flock of My pasture to be destroyed and scattered.” Ez 34:2: “Trouble for the shepherds of Israel who feed themselves! Shepherds ought to feed their flock.”
The Good Shepherd in the New Testament: Introducing himself as the Good Shepherd of his flock, Jesus makes three claims in today’s Gospel.
1) He knows his sheep and his sheep hear his voice: Just as the Palestinian shepherds knew each sheep of their flock by name, and the sheep knew their shepherd and his voice, so Jesus knows each one of us, our needs, our merits and our faults. He loves us as we are, with all our limitations, and he expects us to return his love by keeping his words. He speaks to us at every Mass, through the Bible, through our pastors, through our parents, through our friends and through the events of our lives. “God whispers to us in our pleasures, He speaks to us in our consciences, and He shouts to us in our pain!” (C.S. Lewis). 2) He gives eternal life to us, his sheep by receiving us into his sheepfold and giving us Faith through Baptism, and then he strengthens that Faith in Confirmation. He supplies food for our souls in the Holy Eucharist and in the Divine words of the Holy Bible. He makes our society holy by the Sacraments of Matrimony and the priesthood (Holy Orders. 3) He protects his sheep by placing them in the loving hands of his Almighty Father. Without him to guide us and protect us, we are an easy prey for the spiritual wolves of this world, including Satan and his minions.
In chapter ten of John’s Gospel, Jesus adds two more roles to those of the Good Shepherd. He goes in search of stray lambs and heals the sick ones. Jesus heals the wounds of our souls through the Sacrament of Reconciliation and strengthens us in illness and old age with the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. Jesus dies for his sheep: Just as the shepherds of ancient days protected their sheep from wild animals and thieves by risking their own lives, so Jesus died in expiation for the sins of all people.
Through today’s Gospel, Jesus teaches one of the central aspects of the ministerial priesthood: the priest as shepherd. It means that a priest is one who, by his consecration, lives for others. The title, “Father”, like the title, “Shepherd,” expresses a relation of loving service to others in everything, from the most sacred ministries to the most trivial chores.
Life Messages: Let us become good shepherds and good sheep, good leaders and good followers.
1) Let us become good shepherds: Everyone who is entrusted with the care of others is a shepherd. Hence, pastors, parents, teachers, doctors, nurses, government officials, etc. are all shepherds. We become good shepherds by loving those entrusted to us, praying for them, spending our time and talents for their welfare, and guarding them from physical and spiritual dangers. Parents must be especially careful of their duties, thus giving their children good example through the way they live their Christian lives.
2) Let us be good sheep in the fold of Jesus, the Good Shepherd: Our local parish is our sheepfold, and our pastors are our shepherds. Jesus is the High Priest, the bishops are the successors of the apostles, the pastors are their helpers and the parishioners are the sheep. Hence, as the good sheep of the parish, parishioners are expected to a) hear and follow the voice of their shepherds through their homilies, Bible classes, counseling and advice; b) receive the spiritual food our pastors provide by regular participation in the Holy Mass, by frequenting the Sacraments, and by attending prayer services, renewal programs, and missions; c) cooperate with our pastors by giving them positive suggestions for the welfare of the parish, by encouraging them in their duties, by lovingly offering them constructive criticism when they are found misbehaving or failing in their duties, and by praying for them; and d) cooperate with our fellow-parishioners in the activities of various councils, ministries and parish associations.
3) Let us pray for vocations to the priesthood the diaconate and the consecrated life so that we may have more good shepherds to lead, feed and protect the Catholic community. Let us remember that the duty of fostering vocations is the concern of the whole believing community, and we discharge that responsibility primarily by living exemplary Christian lives. Parents foster vocations by creating a climate in homes based on solid Christian values. They should pray with their children for vocations during the family prayer time and speak encouraging words about their pastors, the missionaries, and the religious, instead of criticizing these servants of God. Such an atmosphere in the family will definitely foster vocations from such families. Financial support of seminarians is also a positive contribution to promoting vocations. (Fr. Antony Kadavil)