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Reflections for the IV Sunday of Easter

Fr. Antony Kadavil reflects and comments on the readings of the fourth Sunday of Easter, also called Good Shepherd Sunday. On this Day, the Church marks the World Day of Vocations.

(Acts 2:14, 36-41; 1Pt 2:20b-25; Jn 10:1-10) 

Introduction: Today is called Good Shepherd Sunday, and, appropriately, this day is also the World Day of Prayer for Vocations.  Today, the Church calls us to reflect on the meaning of God's call for each of us and to pray for vocations to the priesthood, the diaconate, and the consecrated life, because the entire Christian community shares the responsibility for fostering vocations. Both the Old and New Testaments use the image of a Shepherd and His flock to describe the unique relationship of God with Israel and Christ with Christians.

Homily starter anecdote: Moses, the shepherd-leader: The Jews had a lovely legend to explain why God chose Moses to be the leader of His people. "When Moses was feeding the sheep of his father-in-law in the wilderness, a young lamb ran away.  Moses followed it until it reached a ravine, where it found a well to drink from.  When Moses got up to it, he said: `I did not know that you ran away because you were thirsty.  Now you must be weary.'  He took the lamb on his shoulders and carried it back.  Then God said: `Because you have shown pity in leading back one of a flock belonging to another man, you shall lead my flock Israel.” The most beautiful and meaningful comment on the life and the legacy of our late Holy Father, Pope St. John Paul II, was made by the famous televangelist, Billy Graham.  In a TV interview, he said: “He lived like his Master, the Good Shepherd, and he died like his Master, the Good Shepherd.”  In today’s Gospel, Jesus claims that he is the Good Shepherd and explains what he does for his sheep. (http://frtonyshomilies.com/).

Scripture lessons summarized: The first reading is taken from St. Peter’s first sermon, given on Pentecost. Here, he exhorts his listeners, Jewish people gathered for the Feast of Weeks – the "Sabbath" of the seven weeks that have elapsed since Passover -- to know beyond any doubt that the One they have allowed to be crucified is the true Shepherd, whom God has made both Lord and Messiah. Peter then proclaims that the proper response to the Good News about Jesus is to repent and be baptized “in the name of Jesus Christ,” and thus to become members of the Good Shepherd’s flock. Through the Sacrament of Baptism, they will receive forgiveness for their sins. The Responsorial Psalm (Ps 23), introduces Yahweh as the Good Shepherd of Israel and describes all of the things the Lord does for us, His sheep, in providing for our needs.  The second reading, taken from Peter’s First Letter to the Church, continues the "shepherd” imagery.  Peter encourages the suffering Christians to follow in footsteps of their shepherd (“suffering servant”), and to remember that they have been claimed by him. Peter also explains how Jesus, the innocent sufferer, was a model of patience and trust in God, and he reminds us that it is Jesus’ suffering which has enabled us to become more fully children of God. In today’s Gospel, two brief parables about sheep reveal Jesus as our unique means to salvation. He is the selfless, caring “shepherd” who provides protection and life itself, and he is the "sheep gate," the one gateway to eternal life. 

The first reading (Acts 2:14a, 36-41), explained: This text gives us a summary of the whole Gospel message, telling us Who Jesus is, how he saves us, and how we should respond.  Peter tells the people: “You crucified your God and Messiah, but he has risen from death and offers you forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”  The conclusion of the sermon sums up the whole kerygma in a single Christological formula: "God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus Whom you crucified."   The titles "Lord" and "Christ” have great significance.  "Lord" was a title reserved for God alone.  When early Christians realized that God had been made flesh in the person of Jesus, they dared to give him this Divine title.  "Christ" is the Greek form of the Hebrew word "Messiah," meaning the "anointed one,” or   "King."  He is the long-awaited successor to King David, and the fulfillment of all the hopes based on David’s glorious reign. 

The second reading: 1 Peter 2:20b-25 explained: The "shepherd" reference in the last verse of this reading from Peter’s epistle links it to the day's Gospel. “He himself bore our sins in his body upon the cross, so that, free from sin, we might live for righteousness. By his wounds, you have been healed. For you had gone astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd, the guardian of your souls” (vv. 24-25). Peter then makes three contrasts in this part of his epistle: a) between what Jesus suffered and his surprising responses: "...insulted, he returned no insult;" "when he suffered, he did not threaten"(v. 23); b) between Jesus and us: HE bore OUR sins; by HIS wounds WE are healed (v. 24); c) between our former lost condition and our graced present state.

Gospel exegesis: The context: Jesus was not talking to his followers. He was addressing the Pharisees. They were accusing him of being from the devil because he had healed a blind man on the Sabbath. His response was that he was the Good Shepherd.  He was not like the hired hands who collected their pay for watching the sheep but abandoned the sheep in their time of need because these hired men didn’t really care about the sheep. So, the Pharisees knew exactly what Jesus meant Jesus was claiming to be God! They also knew he was contrasting himself to them — the hired hands entrusted with the care of God’s people but caring only for themselves.

Yahweh, the Good Shepherd. For a long time, the Jewish people had used the Good Shepherd image for God. The usage goes all the way back to Genesis 49:24, which says that Joseph was saved "By the power of the mighty one of Jacob, by the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel, the God of your father ..." Such imagery was used by Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Zechariah, and of course by David in his Psalms. The psalmist addresses Yahweh as his Shepherd.  Psalm 23:1 “The Lord is my Shepherd; nothing shall I want.” (Compare also Psalms 77:20, 79:13, 97:7).  "He is our God, and we are the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand" (Ps.95:7).  Like a shepherd, He feeds His flock; in His arms He gathers the lambs, carrying them in His bosom, and leading the ewes with care” (Isaiah 40:11).  Ezekiel foretells what the Messiah will do as Good Shepherd.  I myself will tend My sheep …I will search for the lost and bring back the strays.  I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak” (Ezekiel 34: 15-16).  In short, God is the ultimate Shepherd of the people, providing guidance, sustenance and protection (Psalm 23), and He intends their Kings and other leaders to be their shepherds as well.

The Good Shepherd image in the New Testament: In Palestine, the word "shepherd" was a synonym for selfless love, sincerity, commitment, and sacrificial service.  Hence, Jesus selects it as the most fitting term to denote his life and mission (Mt 2:6, 9:36, 18:12-14, 26:31; Mk 6:34, 14:27; Lk 12:32, 15:4; I Pt 2:25, 5:2-4; Heb 13:20). The prophets pointed out the main duties of the Good Shepherd: 1) The Good Shepherd leads the sheep to the pasture, provides them with food and water and protects them.  In Palestine, the shepherd went in front and the sheep followed behind.  2) He guarded them, not allowing them to get lost in the desert or become victims of robbers and wild animals - preventive vigilance.  3) He went in search of the lost ones and healed their wounds - protective vigilance.  4) He was ready to surrender his life for his sheep - redemptive vigilance.

The first parable in today’s Gospel: The first part of today’s Gospel contrasts Jesus, the true Shepherd, with fake shepherds, thieves and robbers. Jesus gives us warning against false shepherds and false teachers in his Church. Jesus' love and concern for each of us must be accepted with trust and serenity because he alone is our Shepherd, and no one else deserves our undivided commitment. As a true Shepherd, he leads his sheep, giving them the food and protection only Jesus, the Good Shepherd, can provide, and he protects us and leads us to true happiness. 

The second parable. During the time of Jesus in the land of Palestine, the shepherds would bring the sheep down from the hills in the evening to protect them at night when the wolves and mountain lions were hunting their prey.  At night, the shepherds would gather their sheep together and lead them into large pens or sheepfolds which had five-foot-high stone walls. The shepherds put the prickly briars along the top of the wall to prevent the mountain lions and wolves from jumping over it. Now, the doorway was about two feet wide, a narrow space in the front wall facing a fire of wood lit outside at night. The shepherd himself would sleep there in the small opening of the stone wall facing the burning fire with his club and staff. If any mountain lion came, the shepherd would fight it off with his weapons, his short stocky club or his long-pointed staff. Thus, literally and actually, the shepherd himself was the door.

In this parable Jesus compares himself to the Shepherd and to the Gate. The first title represents His ownership because Shepherd is the true owner of the sheep. The second title represents His leadership. Jesus is the Gate, the only Way in or out. He is the One Mediator between God and mankind. All must go through Him, through His Church, in order to arrive in Heaven. By identifying Himself with the sheep-gate, Jesus gives the assurance that whoever enters the pen through Him will be safe and well cared-for.  Jesus is the living Door to His Father’s house and Father’s family, the Door into the Father’s safety and into the fullness of life. It is through Jesus, the Door, that we come into the sheepfold where we are protected from the wolves of life. There is safety and security in being a Christian. There is a spiritual, emotional and psychological security and safety when we live within Jesus and his Church, within the protectiveness of Christ, Christian friends and a Christian family.

Life Messages: 1) We need to be good shepherds and good leaders: Everyone who is entrusted with the care of others is a shepherd.  Hence, pastors, parents, teachers, doctors, nurses, government officials, and caregivers, among others, are all shepherds.  We become good shepherds by loving those entrusted to us, praying for them, spending our time, talents and blessings for their welfare, and guarding them from physical and spiritual dangers.  Parents must be especially careful of their duties toward their children, giving them good example and sound religious instruction. Above all, parents should pray for their children and, by living according to sound Christian moral principles, show their children how to do the same.

2) We need to 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 our shepherds through their homilies, Bible classes, counseling and advice.  b) Receive the spiritual food given by our pastors by regular participation in the Holy Mass, by frequenting the Sacraments and by participating in prayer services, renewal programs and missions as far as we are able to do so.   c) Cooperate with our pastors by giving them positive suggestions for the welfare of the parish, by encouraging them in their duties, by offering them loving correcting and constructive criticism when they are found misbehaving or failing in their duties and, always, by praying for them. d) Participate actively in the work of various councils, ministries and parish associations.

3) We need to pray for good pastors and vocations.  The Church uses this year’s World Day of Prayer for Vocations to encourage vocations to the ministerial priesthood, the diaconate and the consecrated life. All Christians need to share in the responsibility of fostering these vocations: a) The faith community must continuously pray for vocations both in the Church and in their families. b) Since good priests, deacons and people embracing the consecrated life come from good Christian families, all Christian parents need to live their faith in Christ on a daily basis by leading exemplary lives as parents and by fostering good relationships with, and among, their children. c) Parents need to respect and encourage a child who shows an interest in becoming a priest or deacon or of entering upon a consecrated life. Parents need to encourage their children, including their teenagers and young adults, to participate actively in the children’s and youth activities in the parish, like Sunday school, children’s clubs, and youth associations. They also need to encourage and actively support them in becoming altar servants, gift-bearers, lectors and ministers of hospitality.  On this World Day of Prayer for Vocations, let us begin, or continue, especially in these most stressful times in and for the Church, local and universal, to pray earnestly for continued conversion and perseverance in the Faith for our bishops, priests, deacons, those living a consecrated life, and all of the laity, for we are One Body and what one member suffers, all suffer. (Fr. Antony Kadavil)

30 April 2020, 14:19