4th Sunday of Easter – April 17, 2016 – Good Shepherd Sunday
In the beginning of World War II, the Nazis commissioned a massive battleship named the Bismarck. It was the biggest fighting vessel the world had seen up to that time. With the Bismarck, the Germans had the opportunity to dominate the seas. Very soon after it was commissioned, the Bismarck sank tons of Allied shipping and allied aircraft. Its massive armor plating resulted in the boast that the Bismarck was unsinkable. But the Bismarck was sunk. And it was sunk due to one lone torpedo. A torpedo hit the Bismarck in the rudder. As a result, the battleship zig-zagged through the sea, unable to reach harbor. It was only a short while before the British navy was able to overtake and destroy it. No matter how large the battleship may be, it is doomed without a rudder to direct it. Floundering on the waters of chaos without a rudder, the Bismarck is a modern-day image of a world without the direction of Jesus the Good Shepherd. Without the Lord, the world is headed toward chaos. But with the Lord there is guidance, direction and purpose in life.
Introduction: The fourth Sunday of Easter is known as Good Shepherd Sunday and it is the “World Day of Prayer for Vocations.” The scripture lessons for this day concern the role of the shepherds of God’s flock in the Church. Each year on this Sunday, we reflect on the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd who devotedly and kindly takes care of his flock. One pastor recently made the joking remark that some people think that their pastor works only on Sundays! This is obviously untrue. Exactly what responsibilities does God give a pastor and what does God expect of him besides saying Mass and preaching? The answer to the question lies in the title "pastor," which means shepherd. A shepherd leads, feeds, nurtures, comforts, corrects, and protects his flock—responsibilities that belong to every church leader. The earliest Christians saw Jesus as the fulfillment of the ancient Jewish dream of the good shepherd. They also wished to include the Gentiles as part of God’s flock. Today's first reading describes how Paul and Barnabas opted to listen to the voice of Jesus the Good Shepherd and follow him, and how, like their Master, they were rebuffed and rejected when they tried to share the good news of salvation. It also suggests that the sympathy of the early Christians for the Gentiles caused a rupture with Judaism. The second reading, from the book of Revelation, depicts Jesus as both the glorified Lamb and the Shepherd. John's vision encourages his readers with the assurance that every person who has ever followed Christ and led others to him, and who has suffered rejection and persecution, will also know the unending joy of victory and have a share in everlasting life. The Gospel text also offers us both comfort and great challenge. The comforting message is that no one can snatch the sheep out of his Father’s hands. The challenge is that pastors and lay people alike should be good shepherds to those entrusted to their care.
The first reading: Acts 13:14, 43-52: Paul and Barnabas were on their first missionary journey to Asia Minor (present day Turkey). On the Sabbath Paul and Barnabas entered the synagogue at Antioch where they were invited to give a word of exhortation to the people. They explained that since Christ had been rejected by the Jews, Christians were obliged to preach the Gospel to all the nations, thus emphasizing the universal mission of Christianity. In other words, since the Jews had rejected the word of God, it was being offered to the Gentiles. But those Jews in Antioch who opposed the idea of preaching to the Gentiles got enough of a following to expel the apostles from their territory. Nevertheless, Paul and Barnabas remained faithful to the gospel that Jesus had revealed. They “were filled with joy and the Holy Spirit” and continued to preach to the Gentiles who welcomed them with delight (v. 48). The mission of the church is indeed a continuation of the ministry of salvation begun by Jesus. Is the seed of the gospel still being sown to the ends of the earth? Are the poor, the blind, the deaf, the lame, the hungry, the thirsty, the lost and the imprisoned still the primary focus of our service?
The second reading: Rev 7:9, 14-17: The book of Revelation, written for the encouragement of the persecuted Christians, depicts Jesus as both the slain and glorified Lamb and the Good Shepherd. In the latter role, he protects and refreshes his flock when they suffer persecution. John has a vision of all the sheep, representing the universal Church, rescued by the Good Shepherd. John sees people “from every nation, race, people, and tongue.” The Lamb will shepherd and shelter those who, with his help, win through, will feed them well and will wipe “away every tear from their eyes." The essence of the vision is that Christ in his glorified humanity will have the chief place in heaven, and that all rational creatures will sing his praises forever. John’s visions promised his readers that Jesus, the Passover Lamb, would shepherd them, providing them with shelter, protection and safe passage to the life-giving waters of eternity (Psalms 23; 80; 35:10; Isaiah 40:11; Ezekiel 34:23; Jeremiah 2:13).
Exegesis: The context: It was December, wintertime, probably the time of the Jewish Hanukkah feast (the Feast of Dedication), which commemorated the triumph of the Jewish commander Judas Maccabaeus over the Syrian leader Antiochus IV Epiphanes in 165 B. C. Jesus was walking in the Temple on the east side which offered protection against the cold winds from the desert. The Jews had gathered around him. They were not sure whether or not he was the promised Messiah because there were many such wandering preachers and healers in those days. Hence, they asked him directly whether he was the Christ. Instead of giving them an equally direct answer, Jesus claimed that he was the Good Shepherd and explained to them his role.
Shepherds in the Old Testament: In the Old Testament, the image of the Shepherd is often applied to God as well as to the leaders of the people. The book of Exodus represents Yahweh several times as a shepherd. The prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel compare Yahweh’s care and protection of His people to that of a shepherd. “He is like a shepherd feeding his flock, gathering lambs in his arms, holding them against His breast and leading the mother ewes to their rest” (Is. 40:11). Ezekiel represents God as a loving shepherd who searches diligently for the lost sheep. Psalm 23 is David’s famous picture of God as The Good Shepherd: “The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I lack. In green pastures you let me graze, to safe waters you lead me.” The prophets often used harsh words to scold the selfish and insincere shepherds (or leaders) of their day. Jer 23:1: “Doom for the shepherds who allow the flock of my pasture to be destroyed and scattered." Ez 34: 2: “Trouble for the shepherds of Israel who feed themselves! Shepherds ought to feed their flock.”
The Good Shepherd in the New Testament: Introducing himself as the good shepherd of his flock, Jesus makes three claims in today’s gospel.
1) He knows his sheep and his sheep hear his voice: Just as the Palestinian shepherds knew each sheep of their flock by name, and the sheep knew their shepherd and his voice, so Jesus knows each one of us, our needs, our merits and our faults. He loves us as we are, with all our limitations, and he expects us to return his love by keeping his words. He speaks to us at every Mass, through the Bible, through our pastors, through our parents, through our friends and through the events of our lives. "God whispers to us in our pleasures, He speaks to us in our consciences, and He shouts to us in our pain!" (C.S. Lewis). 2) He gives eternal life to us, his sheep by receiving us into his sheepfold and giving us faith in Baptism, and by strengthening that faith in Confirmation. He supplies food for our souls in the Holy Eucharist and in the divine words of the holy Bible. He makes our society holy by the sacraments of matrimony and the priesthood. 3) He protects his sheep by placing them in the loving hands of his Almighty Father. Without him to guide us and protect us, we are an easy prey for the spiritual wolves of this world, including Satan and his minions.
In chapter ten of John’s Gospel, Jesus adds two more roles to those of the good shepherd. He goes in search of stray lambs and heals the sick ones. Jesus heals the wounds of our souls through the sacrament of Reconciliation and strengthens us in illness and old age with the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. Jesus dies for his sheep: Just as the shepherds of ancient days protected their sheep from wild animals and thieves by risking their own lives, so Jesus died in expiation for the sins of all people.
Through today’s gospel, Jesus teaches one of the central aspects of the ministerial priesthood: the priest as shepherd. It means that a priest is one who, by his consecration, lives for others. The title, “Father”, like the title, “Shepherd," expresses a relation of loving service to others, from the most sacred ministries to the most trivial chores.
Life Messages: Let us become good shepherds and good sheep, good leaders and good followers.
1) Let us become good shepherds: Everyone who is entrusted with the care of others is a shepherd. Hence, pastors, parents, teachers, doctors, nurses, government officials, etc. are all shepherds. We become good shepherds by loving those entrusted to us, praying for them, spending our time and talents for their welfare, and guarding them from physical and spiritual dangers. Parents must be especially careful of their duties by giving their children good example through the way they live their Christian lives.
2) Let us 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 their 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 through prayer services, renewal programs and missions, c) cooperate with the pastors by giving them positive suggestions for the welfare of the parish, by encouraging them in their duties, by lovingly offering them constructive criticism when they are found misbehaving or failing in their duties and by praying for them, and d) cooperate with our fellow-parishioners in the activities of various councils, ministries and parish associations.
3) Let us pray for vocations to priestly and religious life so that we may have more good shepherds to lead, feed and protect the Catholic community. Let us remember that the duty of fostering vocations is the concern of the whole believing community and we discharge that responsibility primarily by living exemplary Christian lives. Parents foster vocations by creating a climate in homes based on solid Christian values. They should pray for vocations during the family prayer time and speak encouraging words about their pastors and the missionaries and the religious instead of criticizing them before their children. Such an atmosphere in the family will definitely foster vocations from such families. Financial support of seminarians is also a positive contribution to promoting vocations.
During her visit to the United Nations several years ago, Mother Theresa was approached by a diplomat who said, “I am not a Catholic, Mother. But I want to know: how should I pray.” The frail little nun took his burly hands in hers and spread out five of his fingers on one hand. “When you pray,” she said, “Think about the many blessings you have received; then, at the end of the day, count out on each finger the words spoken to you by Jesus: You.. did.. this.. for.. me.” The diplomat left holding up his hand as though it were a trophy and saying: “You did this for me.” In this simple prayer, Mother Theresa made the Resurrection seem real. What she meant was that the love and peace of the Good Shepherd is present to us in the many moments of compassion that bless our lives: in kind words, in the listening ear, in generous actions. Jesus is also present in the blessings we extend to others. The Good Shepherd of today’s gospel guides us every day in our journey to eternal life.
(Source: Homilies of Fr. Tony Kadavil)