Twenty-sixth in a series of reflections on Mass readings during the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy
Fourth Sunday of Easter
Readings: Acts 13:14, 43-52; Revelation 7:9, 14b-17; John 10:27-30
Perhaps one of the most enduring images of the relationship between God and His people, even before the coming of Christ, is that of a shepherd and a flock. Psalm 23 (“YHWH shepherds me, and so I shall want for nothing”), one of the earliest psalms and attributed to King David, remains 3000 years later one of the most popular songs of all time, to both the religious and the secular, and has been set to music and rhythm and language as multitudinous as the flock itself. Throughout the pages of the Old Testament, God’s people are called a flock of sheep, and those who rule over and tend to them are called shepherds. And when God sees that these shepherds have failed to tend the flock, He boldly announces through His prophet that “I myself will shepherd them.” And now, on this day traditionally known as Good Shepherd Sunday, our continuing Easter celebration directs us back to that time during His ministry that Jesus told His shocked and scandalized audience that He is, in fact, the God-Man come to shepherd His flock Himself (what follows is my own translation of the Gospel reading):
“The sheep that are Mine hear My voice; I know them, and they follow Me. I give them life everlasting, and lest they be destroyed for ever no one shall snatch them from My hand. My Father Who gave them to Me is greater than all, and no one has power to snatch them from the Father’s hand. I and the Father – We are one.”
The First Reading gives us some insight into what Jesus meant by “the sheep that are Mine,” the sheep that “hear My voice.” This passage from the Acts of the Apostles relates how the Jewish community in Antioch began to angrily contradict the testimony of Paul and Barnabas, which they were preaching to the Gentiles (or, non-Jews) in that city. We might guess, from Paul and Barnabas’ response, that these Jews were acting on a basis of divine prerogative – after all, God spoke His Law to no nation other than Israel. Paul and Barnabas acknowledge the primacy of the Jews as God’s chosen people, but go on to explain that God’s word is now to be given to the Gentiles because “you reject it, and condemn yourselves as unworthy of eternal life.”
We should not think for one moment that this charge was laid at all Jews, any more than the charge of sending Jesus to His death was. But remember: the children of Israel, even here in Antioch, were meant by God to be “a light to the nations” through their actions and behavior, so that the salvation given to Israel would reach through them “to the ends of the earth.” Because they have chosen not to exercise this sacred duty, and instead seem to hoard it for themselves, it now falls to these new children of a new Israel – this Church of angels – to do it instead. It’s not that God’s loving pastoral care is ever taken away from those with whom He has made a covenant; rather, those who do not heed the terms of that covenant cut themselves off from God’s mercy.
This is why Jesus can make the distinction of “the sheep that are Mine.” The sheep of the Lord’s flock are the ones who hear His voice and follow Him, whether Gentile or Jew. Indeed, the Book of Revelation, from which our Second Reading is again drawn, speaks of “a great multitude which no one could count from every nation, race, people and tongue” – hardly a narrow cast of characters. All this great multitude, this great flock of the Lord, are gathered around the figure of the Lamb that was slain, Whose praises are sung by the angels. And this Lamb before the throne of God the Father “will shepherd them and lead them to springs of life-giving water.” He Who is both God and Man, both Just Judge and Merciful Savior, both almighty Father and obedient Son, is clarified today as both Shepherd and Lamb. He wants to lead us to the source of life itself, found in the perfect loving unity of the Father and the Son from which the Holy Spirit Himself proceeds. That is our destiny, and it is ours for the taking – or for the throwing away. And just as it was in Antioch, we take it by giving it away – or we throw it away by holding it too close.
“I know them, and they follow Me.” The mystery of the Incarnation is for the whole of the mystical Body. And it is to the glory of this mystery – the promise of everlasting life that is guaranteed by His Resurrection – that the shepherd is leading His flock. And no one can tear us away from Him – we have to wander away ourselves. Know Him. Hear His voice. And make your choice.