4th Sunday of Easter (Year A)
Acts 2:14a, 36-41;
1 Pt 2:20b-25;
The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want
Christ, the Good Shepherd, who is the door to the sheep
The fourth Sunday of Easter is also called “of the Good Shepherd”, and the readings and prayers of the liturgy are focused precisely on this beautiful image of Jesus. For this reason, since 1964 following a decision by Pope Saint Paul VI, this Sunday is the World Day of Prayer for Vocations, for those who have received the call to follow Jesus, the High Priest and Good Shepherd. In this perspective, today many parishes and dioceses around the world organizes the collection for the universal solidarity fund of the Pontifical Society of St. Peter the Apostle (PSSPA) for the formation of priests and consecrated persons, through the support of seminaries and novitiates in the mission territories with their candidates and formators. Thus, every faithful participates actively, with prayer and concrete contribution, in the evangelization mission of the Church, concretely in caring for vocations and formation of new good priests - shepherds with the “odor of the sheep” in the footsteps of Christ the Good Shepherd (Pope Francis, Chrism Mass, Homily, Saint Peter’s Basilica, Holy Thursday, 28 March 2013).
In such a context, today’s Mass readings help us to reaffirm and deepen at least three important aspects of the mission of Christ the Shepherd, a model, according to God’s will and example, of all the shepherds of God’s people.
1. The Particular Relationship between Jesus and His Sheep
The Gospel passage today is very concise, but full of implications. It represents the beginning of Jesus’ discourse in the Fourth Gospel around his self-declaration “I am the good shepherd” (Jn 10:11, 14). Thus, right from the start, even before declaring that he is the Good Shepherd, he simply underlines a fundamental characteristic of the relationship between him and his sheep: “Amen, amen, I say to you, […] whoever enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. […] the sheep hear his voice, as he 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 [lit. know] his voice.” The words here find their echo in what Jesus will say later in his self-declaration of being a good shepherd: “I am the good shepherd, [says the Lord,] and I know mine and mine know me” (Jn 10:14); as well as at the end of the speech, “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me” (Jn 10:27).
Here, the verb “to know” in the Biblical-Jewish language denotes a knowledge that is not so much intellectual (to have information about something) as existential, as is the relationship between husband and wife. It is about intimate and integral mutual knowledge, a knowing that implies loving and belonging to one another. Precisely for this reason, when Jesus declared that he was a good shepherd, he explained further that “A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (Jn 10:11b, 15b). He does this, because he knows his sheep, that is, he loves them deeply, more than his own life.
Furthermore, the knowledge between Jesus and his sheep is paralleled with that between Jesus and God the Father. He affirms, in fact, “I know mine and mine know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father” (Jn 10:14b-15). The relationship between Jesus the Good Shepherd and his disciples is therefore placed in comparison with the mystical reality of intimate knowledge between the two divine Persons. So, on the one hand, here we can glimpse the depth of the knowledge-love Jesus has for his sheep, like that which Jesus has for the Father! Jesus actually states elsewhere, “As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love “(Jn 15: 9). On the other hand, when Jesus affirms that his sheep know him, we can ask ourselves whether our knowledge for Jesus is actually comparable to that between the Father and Jesus. The statement, therefore, can also be seen as an implicit invitation to Jesus’ “sheep” for a serious self-examination of whether and how much they know their Shepherd and recognize his voice in the midst of the noises all around. Since one never runs out of all the riches of the mystery of Christ, the commitment to grow more and more in the knowledge of the Shepherd, who knows and loves them to the point of giving his life for them, remains always relevant for the sheep of all times. (Significant in this regard is Jesus’ reproach to Philip, one of his close disciples: “Have I been with you for so long a time and you still do not know me, Philip?” (Jn 14: 9). These words are also valid for every disciple who follows him).
2. “I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.”
Affirming the particular relationship with his sheep, Jesus states further his special care/mission which comes from such knowledge and love: “I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” (Jn 10:10). This special mission/care of Jesus is reaffirmed again at the end of the discourse: “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish. No one can take them out of my hand” (Jn 10:28). Thus, the gift of life in abundance is identified with eternal life. The latter though does not designate a future reality only after death. It indicates life in communion with Jesus and with God, which begins already in the present and will continue into eternity. So much so that Jesus underlines, “Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life.” (Jn 6:47). Similarly, “Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes in the one who sent me has eternal life and will not come to condemnation, but has passed from death to life” (Jn 5:24). Moreover, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” (Jn 6:54).
From these quotations, especially the last one, we see another fundamental aspect of the eternal life Jesus gives to his sheep. That “eternal life” is exactly Jesus’ own life He offers, as made explicit in the declaration of the good shepherd mentioned above (“A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” [Jn 10:11b, 15b]). Therefore, Jesus also made himself a sacrificial lamb to give his life to his sheep and lead them “to springs of life-giving water” (Rev 7:17), as the second reading reminds us.
Jesus is the shepherd who not only knows the odor of the sheep, but has also made himself one of them, to share everything of life with them, everything including death! This is what is stated for the figure of Christ the high priest: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin” (Heb 4:15).
This strong bond between Jesus the good shepherd and his sheep will be the reason why “no one can take them out” (Jn 10:28) of his hand and of Father’s hand. Just as Saint Paul the Apostle expresses the same concept with moving inspired words starting from a rhetorical question: “What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword? No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:35, 37-39).
3. An Unusual Metaphor: “I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture”
In John’s Gospel, the original image of Jesus as the gate leading to life seems to emphasize His function as the exclusive mediator. The latter figure, for his part, is described with another image that is as enigmatic as it is original, which Jesus mentions in his discourse with Nathanael: the Son of Man will be like the stairway on which angels descend and ascend (Jn. 1:51). What is interesting is the fact that the image of the stairway has as its Old Testament background the passage from Jacob’s dream in Luz, later called Bethel (Gen 28:12ff) where, after the vision of the stairway connecting heaven and earth and after the struggle with God, the patriarch exclaims “How awesome this place is! This is nothing else but the house of God, the gateway to heaven!” (Gen 28:17). Therefore, the image of Jesus as “the gate of the sheep,” despite the slight difference in the term used in the original, may have some connection with the idea of the gate leading to heaven in Gen 28:12ff.
From this perspective, the dual statement of Jesus as the door and the shepherd of the sheep in his explanation has the theological elements very close to the declaration of Jesus as “the way, the truth and the life.” In both cases, the exclusivity of Jesus’ mediation for the salvation, that is, the life, of all people is emphasized. It also emphasizes the true, genuine character in his identity: the good shepherd is the ideal, perfect, beautiful one according to God’s plan. Moreover, the image of Jesus as the door of the sheep comes close to the metaphor of the way to life. It is no accident that He Himself concludes the discourse on the door with the Christological-soteriological statement: “I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” (Jn 10:10b). Here appears the contact with Wisdom personified, whose “door” leads to life and communion with God (cf. Pro 8:34-35).
In conclusion, the declaration of Jesus as the “good shepherd” not only emphasizes his goodness but is intended to convey the idea of the ideal, genuine, perfect shepherd, that is, according to God’s will for Israel at the end of time. This perfection then consists among other things and perhaps above all in his quality of being wise in contrast to the senseless and wicked shepherds, as attested in the numerous Old Testament passages. Specifically, the text of John’s Gospel highlights the two basic characteristics of the perfect shepherd: giving or risking one’s life for the sheep and the intimate knowledge between the shepherd and the sheep. While the first aspect is shown to be rather Christological and alludes to the concrete fact of the cross, the second turns out to be highly sapiential, because even the followers of Wisdom herself hear her voice, ignored by the foolish and wicked. Thus, in Jesus we see not only the image of the wise shepherd but Shepherd-Wisdom; that is to say, He appears to be the Wisdom of God become Shepherd. We must then ask ourselves today: do we who are His sheep still try to listen and follow our good Shepherd and Wisdom?