Home Homilies Michael Whelan SM, PhD Fourth Sunday of Easter (11 May 2014)

Fourth Sunday of Easter (11 May 2014)

“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.

So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly”. (John 10:1-10 – NRSV)

Introductory notes

1.      The metaphor of the shepherd is used frequently in the Psalms and the Prophets. For example:

a.      Ezekiel 34:1 – the false shepherds are condemned; see also Isaiah 56:11; Jeremiah 2:8, 10:21, 12:10, 22:20, 23:1, 25:34-36 & 50:6; Zechariah 10:2, 11:4ff & 13:7 (though this latter text – “Strike the shepherd, that the sheep may be scattered” – is put on the lips of Jesus in Mark 14:27 and Mathew 26:31 and possibly John 16:32); Nahum 3:18;

b.      Moses prays that the people be not like sheep without a shepherd – Genesis 27:17; see also Judith 11:19, 1 Kings 22:17 and 2 Chronicles 18:16;

c.       Micah 5:2-3 – “(Therefore the Lord will give them up, until the time when she who is to give birth has borne, and the rest of his brethren shall return to the children of Israel.) He shall stand firm and shepherd his flock ….”; see also Jeremiah 3:15; Isaiah 63:11 & 44:28 (used in this instance of Cyrus, King of Persia); 2 Samuel 5:2; Psalm 78:71-72;

d.      Psalm 23:1 – the metaphor is applied directly to God: “The Lord is my shepherd …”; see also Psalm 80:1-2; Isaiah 40:11, Jeremiah 31:10 and Genesis 49:24;

e.      Saul was to be shepherd of Israel – 2 Samuel 5:2;

f.        David is shepherd of Israel – 1 Chronicles 11:2; see also 2 Samuel 24:17 and Ezekiel 34:23-25.

2.      The Christian Scriptures – especially the Gospels –use the metaphor of shepherd a number of times. For example:

a.      Matthew 2:6 applies the prophecy of Micah 5:1-3 to Jesus – “And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; since from you shall come a ruler, who is to shepherd my people Israel’; see also Revelation 7:17;

b.      Mark 6:34 has Jesus say the people seem like “sheep without a shepherd” – see b. above; Matthew 9:36 follows Mark;

c.       Mark 14:27 places on Jesus lips the words of Zechariah 13:7 – “The shepherd is struck and the sheep scatter” – Matthew 26:31 follows Mark;

d.      Matthew 18:12-14 has Jesus tell the parable of the lost sheep – see also Luke 15:1-7; this parable would easily be related by Jesus’ listeners to Ezekiel 34:1ff;

e.      Matthew 25:32 – the story of the last judgement where the “shepherd separates the sheep from the goats”;

f.        John 21:15-17 – Jesus tells Peter, “feed my sheep”;

g.      Hebrew 13:20-21 – the blessing given at the end of this Letter recalls references in d. above – “Now may the God of peace, who brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, make you complete in everything good so that you may do his will, working among us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.”

h.      Revelation 12:5 echoes Psalm 2:9 – “with a rod of iron you shall shepherd them”; see also Revelation 2:27 & 19:15;

i.        1 Peter 2:25 – Jesus is the faithful shepherd, contrary to those shepherds who have lead the sheep astray – see a. above.

j.        It is interesting to note that Luke does not use the metaphor of the shepherd at all, with the possible exception of St Paul’s address to the elders in Ephesus: Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God.” (Acts 20:28) This might be due to the audience for which he wrote: “Luke certainly wrote for Gentile Christians. Thus he consistently avoids many matters which might appear too specifically Jewish.” (Wilfrid J Harrington, Key to the Bible – Volume 3: The New Testament –Record of the Fulfilment, Image Books 1976, 75.)

3.      One scholar describes the probable farming practice with which the listeners would be well aware: “The sheep are in a fold, a sheep pen. This might be part of a family courtyard; in view of v. 3, it is better to think of a larger, independent enclosure, where several families kept their sheep, hiring an undershepherd (the ‘watchman’ of v. 2) to guard the gate. Those who were authorized to enter would of course do so through the gate. He whose interest is stealing or wounding the sheep would avoid the gate; he climbs in by some other way.” (D A Carson, The Gospel according to John, W.B. Eerdmans, 1991, 381.)

4.      “…. it is of the nature of metaphor that it is a literary device that speaks of one thing in terms that are suggestive of another (cf. Janet Martin Soskice, as in the fn. to 6:35). That sheep farming was widespread in the largely agrarian cultures of the first-century Mediterranean basin ensures that many associations would commend themselves to both writer and readers. To demand that these constitute a single, self-consistent mental picture, or a story with a unified plot, is to be unnecessarily restrictive on the natures of both metaphor and parable.” (D A Carson, op cit, Footnote 3, 382.)

5.      “Near-Eastern shepherds have been known to stand at different spots outside the enclosure and sound out their own peculiar calls, their own sheep responding and gathering around their shepherd. This shepherd goes further: he calls his own sheep by name, which at the least means that he calls them individually (cf. 3 Jn. 15 for the same expression), and thus leads them out. Jesus comes to the sheep pen of Judaism, and calls his own sheep out individually to constitute his own messianic ‘flock’. The assumption is that they are in some way ‘his’ before he calls them.” (D A Carson, op cit, 383-384.)

6.      John 10:1-10 follows the story of the man born blind – see 9:1-40 (the story occupies the whole chapter). The words of Ezekiel concerning the bad shepherds apply to those religious leaders who seemed to care more about themselves than the afflicted person. Listen to Ezekiel 34:1-6: “Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. …. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them.”

a.      In Ezekiel – as in John – the sheep clearly belong to God – “my sheep” – and God has their best interests at heart. So in Ezekiel 34:10-16 we read: “I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.”

7.      There may be a veiled reference to Numbers 27:15-17 in John 10:3: “Moses spoke to the Lord, saying, ‘Let the Lord, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint someone over the congregation who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the Lord may not be like sheep without a shepherd.”

a.      In fact, the successor for whom Moses prayed is Joshua which in Greek is ‘Jesus’.

8.      John 10:7ff are an explication of the message found in the first five verses.

a.      Jesus begins by declaring that he is “the gate” (v.7). This seems to echo 14:6 – “I am the way”. It also has an obvious and pointed meaning in the context, reaffirmed in v.11 with the declaration, “I am the good shepherd”. It implies that Jesus is God’s appointed shepherd, the one who will lead the people according to the Covenant and, by implication, the current leaders are not to be followed.

                                                  i.      Perhaps there is here a reference to Psalm 118:20: “This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it.” Verses 22-23 of this Psalm are applied to Jesus in Matthew 21:42 and 2 Peter 2:7: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvellous in our eyes.”

b.      The word “life” (zoe) (v.10), extends the metaphorical understanding here. Sheep that are full of life are fat, contented, flourishing and healthy, not terrorized by brigands or wild animals. The life of the one who believes in Jesus is a flourishing human life.

Our text

He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out (v.3)

If you are in a crowded room and there is a buzz of conversation, you may not distinguish the actual words being spoken except those spoken by the person or persons with whom you are engaged. However, if someone within your hearing, but not part of your conversation, says your name, it is quite likely that you will hear your name clearly amidst the general buzz.

It can be hurtful when someone twists your name or gives you a nick name that mocks or demeans you. Children can sometimes exhibit a particular instinct for this. It can be an instrument of bullying.

On the other hand, a nick name might be an endearing and affirming thing. When the other speaks your name it can be an act of love – when the lover speaks to the beloved, friend to dear friend, parent to child. Nothing else may be said. Sometimes nothing else needs to be said.

The thought that Jesus might speak my name – my name – is deeply consoling and even exhilarating. The thought is already there in the Prophet: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” (Isaiah 43:1)

The intimacy of having one’s name spoken by the Lord is situated in an ongoing dialogue: Jesus says the sheep “hear his voice” (v.3) and “they know his voice” (v.4) whereas “they do not know the voice of strangers” (v.5). And there are others who will become part of this dialogue because “they will listen to (his) voice”.

This is the very heart of belief/faith and community for John – an intimate relationship with Jesus and a correspondingly intimate knowledge: “I know my own and my own know me just as the Father knows me and I know the Father” (vv.14-15). The intimacy with the Lord is an intimacy with his Father.

Michael Whelan SM

“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” (1 Jn 4:16). These words from theFirst Letter of John express with remarkable clarity the heart of the Christian faith: the Christian image of God and the resulting image of humankind and its destiny. In the same verse, Saint John also offers a kind of summary of the Christian life: “We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us”. We have come to believe in God’s love: in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his or her life. Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” [The opening words of Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical, Deus caritas est.]