USCCB LINK TO ALL THREE READINGS
April 16-17, 2016 FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
“My sheep hear my voice;
I know them, and they follow me.
I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.
No one can take them out of my hand.
My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all,
and no one can take them out of the Father’s hand.
The Father and I are one.”
I have to confess that my office library on St. John’s Gospel is not as deep as I wish it was. I presently own only two classic commentaries on the Fourth Gospel. Father Raymond Brown’s two-volume set on this Gospel in the Anchor Bible commentary series is a venerable work that I have used before, but I noted today that it dates back to 1966! It is a tribute to the quality of this work that it continues to remain an Amazon best seller. It is still a worthy addition to your library to augment newer works published since then, if you can find it at a bookshop or on-line service that may not appreciate its historical value. I purchased a one-volume Dante this past summer for $1—or excuse me, one Euro—in a tiny Irish island town to help pass a rainy afternoon.
John’s Gospel is not in the A-B-C Cycle of Sunday readings in the Catholic Lectionary, but many of its texts appear on our high holy days such as Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter. Moreover, one can make an argument that John’s theology—his understanding of Christ—is indispensable to the life of the Church and the ministry of teaching and catechesis. While there are some brief primers on the Gospel that every religious publisher carries, I might recommend Father Francis Moloney’s Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of John (1998) published by Paulist Press, for the serious student. The Sacra Pagina series of commentaries seems written for both scholarly insight and personal reflection, preaching, and teaching. Father Moloney is also the author of the St. Mark commentary we used last year.
John’s Gospel is one text that requires a solid commentary. Its arrangement and themes differ greatly from the other three Gospels, and the segments from John like next Sunday’s Gospel are not always what they seem to be. For centuries the fourth of the Easter Sundays has been known affectionately, if not officially, as Good Shepherd Sunday. All three cycles contain a portion of Jesus’ self-description as the shepherd of his fold. At first glance this sequence from John may seem inviting—particularly in light of St. Luke’s parable about the little lost sheep and the kindly shepherd who “gathers it gently in his arms” in the words of our smarmy present-day Mass hymn, “Like a Shepherd.”
The sheep business is a dirty business. Not for nothing did Pope Francis exhort churchmen to “smell like their sheep.” In Jesus’ day the shepherds behaved pretty much like cattlemen in the old American west when the closest sheriff was hundreds of miles away in Dodge City. Jesus himself states that he would give his life for his sheep. Shepherds were routinely mauled or killed by predators and probably other shepherds. (Luke’s account of angels appearing to shepherds on Christmas Eve is all the more remarkable in this light.) Sheep are not docile nor are they conformists; again, while in Ireland I had an opportunity to meet some sheep en masse and noted the dye markers in their fleece to keep them in the right flock for the right owner. Sheep are not the poster animals of the environment, either; as I understand it, sheep eat the grass down to the roots which creates soil instability and exacerbated stress for other herdsmen in U.S. western history on public grazing lands.
To this background we have the narrative of St. John, a Gospel written apparently in a time and place where Jewish and Christian relations were difficult to say the least. The destruction of Jerusalem by Rome in 70 A.D. was being interpreted by Christians as God’s rejection of the Jewish people for their failure to accept the Christ as the Messiah who comes to give eternal life. John’s Gospel is noted for its discourses between Jesus and in most cases Jews which share the common thread of accepting or rejecting the true identity and the life-giving works of the Word made flesh.
The identification of Jesus as a “shepherd” is rare in the New Testament. Hebrews 13:20 is the only other site besides the references here in John to speak of Jesus as a shepherd. In our Sunday text, the actual life and death scenarios of this rugged profession become metaphors for the relationship of Jesus to his sheep. Note that “my sheep” hear my voice; that Jesus “knows” them and they “follow me.” Jesus gives them “eternal life” and allays all fear of perishing. No one can steal them from Jesus since they are his by the Father’s gift, and “the Father and I are one.”
Moloney observes that although the text is written in the positive, in terms of the good things that will happen to the sheep, it must also be read in the negative. The sheep who do not hear Jesus’ voice and fail to follow him will not attain eternal life and will certainly perish. (p. 315) This is a pattern of teaching consistent throughout St. John’s Gospel: “he who feed on my flesh and drinks my blood has life eternal….” “He who believes in me will never die….” At the time of composition, the very late first century, it is easy to imagine that the Christian-Jewish struggles colored the author’s emphasis upon the ultimate importance of listening to the right authority figure speaking for God (“for the Father and I are one.”) and believing his return from the dead in glory.
In the flow of John’s Gospel, the Good Shepherd narrative takes place during the public ministry; but here the Church inserts it into the post-Resurrection narrative, and appropriately so, for we have seen that faith in the Resurrection did not come easily even to the disciples. Last weekend’s Gospel highlighted the struggle of Thomas, though as the homilist in my church correctly observed, the other disciples—even after seeing the risen Jesus and receiving the Holy Spirit—remained in seclusion behind locked doors. Three weeks into Easter we still wrestle with faith in the vision and the word of Jesus. There is a message here.