First Reading: Acts 4:8-12.
Responsorial Psalm: Ps 117(118):1, 8-9, 21-23, 26, 28-29.
Second reading: 1 John 3:1-2.
Gospel: John 10:11-18.
Link to readings.
The Fourth Sunday after Easter is traditionally “Good Shepherd” Sunday, with the Gospel reading taken from the long discourse in John 10 where Jesus presents himself in this attractive image.
The First Reading is taken, once again from the early chapters of Acts, 4:8-12. It features Peter’s defence before the authorities in Jerusalem following his arrest at their instigation. His appeal is based upon evidence that they cannot deny: the cure, through the power of the Lord Jesus, of a crippled man (3:1-10), who used to beg quite publicly. Hence Peter’s conclusion: “Let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth..., for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” (4:10-12).
This text has been controversial in recent years since it has been used to argue that Christian faith alone is the path to salvation, to the exclusion of all other religions. This is to take this single text out of context and extract from it rather more than it can bear. What is at issue in the original context is an intra-Jewish debate (Peter and all the apostles were, of course, Jews) as to whether Jesus was or was not the Messiah. The Second Vatican Council, while upholding the position of Jesus as universal Saviour, nuanced this traditional belief in a more pluralist direction by acknowledging that other great faiths reflected “a ray of that Truth (Jesus Christ) who enlightens all” (Nostra Aetate §2)—an insight that has undergone further development in the years since the Council.
In the Second Reading we have a truly attractive passage from the 1st Letter of John, 3:1-2. It features one of the clearest statements of the early Christian conviction that believers, through the union with Christ established by faith and baptism, have a share in the filial relationship that he has with God (see John 1:12; 20:17), and in the intimacy with God and hope of sharing God’s eternal life that this entails. In the face of the world’s hostility and contempt, believers can rest secure in the knowledge that this is how God regards us—as sons and daughters upon whom God has “lavished love” (Jerusalem Bible translation). Secure in this conviction, we can be content at present to be quite “agnostic” about the details of what the future (beyond death) holds. The central truth is that it will involve what is not presently available to us: direct vision of God and the transformation into the divine likeness that goes with that vision and leads to sharing God’s eternal life.
This image of Christ as “Good Shepherd” reaches right back to the tradition that the first king of the royal house of Judah, David, was originally a young shepherd. Instead of lording it over their subjects like the rulers of other peoples, Israelite kings, as successors of David, were meant primarily to be shepherds for the people. Few kings lived up to this standard. But the long awaited Son of David, the Messiah, was expected to be the “Good Shepherd (King)” par excellence.
Today’s Gospel (John 10:11-18) forms the centrepiece of the long sequence (chapter 10) devoted to this theme in the Fourth Gospel. Twice Jesus makes the solemn claim, “I am the Good Shepherd.” The emphasis rests upon the initial “I” and the adjective. In contrast to the authorities, who have proved to be negligent and mercenary, leading to the dispersal and ravaging of the people, Jesus is the “good” Shepherd.
The claim rests upon two qualities. The first is that, in contrast to shepherds who run away at the sign of danger, Jesus is prepared to stay with the sheep and if necessary lay down his life to protect them. The second is that his relationship with the sheep is one of true knowledge—“knowledge” in the biblical sense that implies deep intimacy. Moreover, Jesus continues, such knowledge is itself a projection of the knowledge and intimacy that exists between himself and the Father.
We believers of subsequent generations find a point of inclusion in the discourse when Jesus refers to “other sheep,” not yet of this fold, who have to be brought in. Here the Good Shepherd, as living Lord of the Church, reaches out to us.
At the end of the passage Jesus reflects majestically upon his death. While outwardly life may seem to be taken from him, his surrender to death will be a supremely free act of love: the Good Shepherd giving his life to save his sheep. And the self-giving love that impels him to do this is simply an extension of the love of the Father than lies behind and energises his entire mission.
Brendan Byrne, SJ, FAHA, taught New Testament at Jesuit Theological College, Parkville, Vic., for almost forty years. He is now Emeritus Professor at the University of Divinity (Melbourne). His commentaries on the Gospels can be found at Pauline Books and Media