In St. John’s Gospel, after a long description of Jesus’ healing of a man born blind (with all the disputation it caused among Jewish leaders) in the preceding chapter, Jesus begins speaking of Himself as “the Good Shepherd.” Any Jew listening to this kind of talk would immediately be immersed in the vast Old Testament context of God’s relationship with shepherds. Recall that when He first appeared to Moses at the burning bush, Moses was shepherding a flock (see Ex 3:1). It was Moses’ shepherd staff that God used as the focal point for many of the miraculous works He did in Egypt to convince Pharaoh to free His people. Later, when it was time for a new king of Israel to be chosen, the prophet, Samuel, was directed to David, a mere shepherd boy. In spite of his youth, David’s heart belonged to God, and he was willing to risk his life to defeat Goliath, the mighty Philistine warrior who taunted and terrified the men of Israel. When David lobbied hard to be allowed to undertake this dangerous mission, he drew on his experience of being a shepherd who defended his flock from wild animals: “The LORD, who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine” (see 1 Sam 17:27). David’s courage came from his confidence in God; armed with only a shepherd’s slingshot and five smooth stones, he defeated the giant of a man who had threatened to enslave all Israel (see 1 Sam 17:9). The five stones of David foreshadow the five wounds of Jesus (feet, hands, side) that defeated our terrifying enemy, the devil—the one who likewise sought to enslave all men.
Finally, during the time of the Exile, when the Jews experienced punishment in a foreign land for their covenant infidelity, God promised through the prophet, Ezekiel, that someday He Himself would shepherd His flock (see Ezek 34:11-16), leading them out of captivity and back to the green pastures of the Promised Land. God also promised to send His people another servant like David: “And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them…and be their shepherd” (see Ezek 34:23).
So, when Jesus announces, “I am the Good Shepherd,” He is drawing on this rich Old Covenant preparation to identify Himself as the Divine (“I am” is God’s Holy covenant Name) Son of David, who has come to care for God’s flock. He will not only lead the flock but will also be willing to die for them. This is the true test of a shepherd’s love! The “hired man” flees from that kind of devotion to the sheep; he is not willing to die for them. Jesus, however, says, “I lay down My life. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down on My own in order to take it up again.” His enemies would soon appear to be taking His life from Him, as they arrest and crucify Him. Yet we know that Jesus could have called down a legion of angels to deliver Him, had He so desired. Instead, He freely gave His life so that the murderous assault against Him could be transformed into liberation for all men—not just for the Jews, but for all God’s sheep, including those who “do not belong to this fold” (the Gentiles). This is the Good Shepherd for whom the whole world has been waiting.
Is it any wonder, then, that today’s successors to those whom Jesus put in charge of God’s flock after His departure (the Pope and bishops) carry the shepherd’s staff? Jesus, the Good Shepherd, continues to speak to and guide God’s flock, the Church, through them. This He does by a charism of the Holy Spirit. No human being can do a work like this on his own. However, by Jesus’ commission, His apostles were to be in this world as He was. The sheep have not been left to fend for themselves. If we follow the shepherd’s staff carried by the Pope and the bishops in union with him, we shall find green pasture for our souls.
Possible response: Lord Jesus, help me remember that I am a sheep and You are the Shepherd, that I need to follow and not try to lead.
First Reading (Read Acts 4:8-12)
In this passage, we can see for ourselves that Jesus truly did give His own charism of leadership to the apostles He had chosen to be His presence in the world. Peter and John had just cured a cripple on their way to the Tempe to pray, and they got hauled before the Jewish authorities to explain themselves. Peter tells them that the miracle, although done through their human action, was accomplished “in the Name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean whom you crucified.” It is in that Name alone that men find salvation, although the message of salvation (preaching the Gospel) and the means of it (baptism) are delivered through human agency, just as we find everywhere in the Acts of the Apostles.
Peter also reminds his accusers that they had rejected Jesus. He quotes from Psalm 118, which is a reflection on how God chooses to do His great work in the world by means of reversal. With God, things are not as they seem. Peter appropriately refers to his accusers as “builders,” because, as administrators of the Temple in Jerusalem, they oversaw a lengthy construction project there that lasted many years. The “stone” they rejected, Jesus, actually became the “cornerstone” of the new Temple of His Body, the place of true communion between God and man.
It is interesting to ponder a similar rejection of a “stone” in our own Christian history. When Jesus gave the keys of the kingdom of His Church to Simon, changing his name to “Peter,” or “rock,” He said: “Upon this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (see Mt 16:18). Both our Orthodox and Protestant brothers in the faith have rejected this stone, at least for a time. Someday, all believers will recognize that the rejected “rock” of Peter has always been the cornerstone upon which Jesus kept His promise to protect His flock from wolves.
Possible response: Heavenly Father, sometimes I want to reject a “stone” upon which You want to build something in my life. Help me be willing to slow down and take a second look.
Psalm (Read Ps 118:1, 8-9, 21-23, 26, 28-29)
The psalmist reflects upon the goodness, mercy, and kindness of the LORD. God gives His flock safe refuge; He answers the cry of those who call upon Him. He is the One who works wonders of reversal in the world’s history: “The stone rejected by the builders has become the cornerstone.” The Jews rejected Jesus because, although a man, He called Himself by God’s own Name: “I am.” How could an ordinary human being be God? Interestingly, in verses not included in today’s Gospel reading, the Jews were outraged by Jesus’ claim to be Israel’s Good Shepherd: “There was a division among the Jews because of these words. Many of them said, ‘He has a demon, and He is mad; why listen to Him?’” [Similar things have been said about the Church’s claim that Peter’s successor, the Pope, is the Vicar of Christ, speaking with His Voice in matters of dogma and morals.]
Nevertheless, the psalmist understands that God takes the “wisdom” of this world and stands it on its head: “By the LORD has this been done, and it is wonderful in our eyes.”
Possible response: The psalm is, itself, a response to our other readings. Read it again prayerfully to make it your own.
Second Reading (Read 1 Jn 3:1-2)
When we absorb our other readings today, are we not ready to say with St. John in this epistle: “See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God”? To be in God’s flock, to be one of the sheep for whom Jesus died, is to be lifted up out of this world, even though we are still in it. It is to sink our roots down deep into the reality of God’s reversals. Here, St. John touches on another topsy-turvy truth, one that defies all imagination: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.” Did ever a sheep expect to become like the Shepherd? “By the LORD has this been done, and it is wonderful in our eyes” (Ps 118:23).
Possible response: Lord Jesus, I know that You are shepherding me toward a transformation into perfect Love, as You are Yourself. I barely know how to thank You for this. Words fail.