by f. Luis CASASUS, General Superior of the mens branch of the Idente Missionaries
New York, 03 May, 2020. | Fourth Sunday of Easter.
Acts of the Apostles 2: 14.36-41; First Letter of Peter 2: 20-25; Saint John 10: 1-10.
Jesus Christ spoke to the disciples in many ways. Sometimes he referred to the virtues, other times to the commandments. Still, when he speaks of Himself, we have to redouble our attention. In fact, today’s Gospel tells us that even He was using several figures of speech. The disciples did not quite understand what he meant by saying he was the shepherd, the gatekeeper, and the gate for the sheep.
Christ’s final words today underline the importance of what it means “to be the gate.” Firstly, to give access to a full life and, at the same time, to protect from those who appear to give life but are in reality sources of death, as He himself once said whitened sepulchers.
When you perceive a person to be a hypocrite, you devalue him or her and his or her message. Regardless of its importance or value, their message might be disregarded or become tainted by the untrustworthiness of the source. When today Christ refers to certain leaders or spiritual guides, He goes even further, calling them thieves that come only to steal and slaughter and destroy.
You an I might be quick to identify hypocrisy in others, but are we as aware of our own inconsistencies? Surely it is useful to remember the signs that Christ detects in the hypocrites or in the hypocritical behaviors that many of us display.
Firstly, it is not the same to be hypocritical as to be inconsistent or lacking in coherence. The first disciples were not consistent in their mercy, their prayer (Mt 26: 40), or their humility (Lk 22: 24). Christ rebuked them, but He did not call them hypocrites. The difference is that many Pharisees and Scribes were aware of their own lack of coherence between saying and doing. They even justified and saw their own inconsistencies as virtues. We are like them when we say, Don’t be dishonest, and then, when caught being dishonest, we respond, I wasn’t being dishonest but tactful. Totally different.
Secondly, the hypocrite continually seeks to remind others of their obligations, responsibilities, and unfinished business, blaming them for mistakes for which he is possibly primarily responsible. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger (Mt 23: 4). He has a yardstick for others that he never uses for himself. Even popular wisdom reflects this attitude in its sayings: One who lives in a glass house should not throw stones.
The hypocrite cannot live an authentic charity because he loses sensitivity to the pain and limitations of others. They break bruised reeds and quench smoldering wicks (cf. Mt 12: 20). We all make mistakes while acting with good intentions, and, of course, we all sin and sometimes have mixed intentions, but hypocrites are experts at attributing all the errors of others to evil intentions, arrogance, erroneous doctrines or the desire to be admired and appreciated. This explains why St. Peter links hypocrisy to envy: Therefore, putting aside all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander, like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation (1Pe 2: 1-2).
Finally, the hypocrite’s deeds are oriented to impress people. At the same time, they excel at creating obstacles to the progress of others. They expect others to accept unquestioningly that they are a superior class of human being. Of course, that is a way of stealing other people’s lives. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long (Mt 23: 5). And, unlike Jesus, they are not a door, but an insurmountable wall: Hypocrites! … you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you, neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in (Mt 23: 13).
Notice how, in today’s First Reading, the apostles do precisely the opposite, giving light for people to change and an answer to their honest question: What are we to do, my brothers?
Typically, hypocritical people avoid asking for forgiveness. Firstly because they internally make up for their mistakes and offenses (First point) but also because they consider that it would destroy their reputation. It is ironic, but we know that the exact opposite would happen, as it did to St. Peter or to so many sinners who approached Christ.
To maintain their dominance, hypocrites avoid actions that make others stronger. They make a big deal out of small things while trivializing the truly essential, and avoid fact-based reasoning, thereby hindering the mission and development of their neighbors. They will also create the impression of being or doing more than is true, to gain more credit or praise than deserved.
Christ summarizes, in his last sentence today, the mission he has in his coming to the world: I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly. In Baptism, we die and rise with Christ. It changes us from a tomb, a place of spiritual death, to a temple of the Holy Spirit. As St Peter says to the early Christians: You had gone astray like sheep but now you have come back to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.
In the first part of his message today, Jesus refers to the dangers, enemies, and attackers seeking only their own interests. He alludes especially to spiritual guides and leaders who apparently desire the good of others, but in reality seek only their own interests. The hypocrites.
An important observation is that, while the hypocrites may deceive their victims for a while, the time will come when the sheep will recognize the voice of the true shepherd, of the person, or persons, who really bring them closer to God.
But perhaps the strength of that allegory, the door, lies in the fact that drawing near to God is not a method, nor following a law, nor even a discipline. Without despising the above, Christ reveals to us that he is the passageway, the doorway. He invites us to take His life as the norm and criterion of our own in every thought, desire, and motivation. In everything we do or say, we need to consult and seek Christ’s counsel in our decision-making; that is the Spirit that must preside over our mind, will, and heart. This is the Spirit of the Gospel…Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
Through the door, the sheep also enter and also exit. We should remember this conclusion because it is telling us how to be careful in approaching our fellowmen. Our encounters with others always take place after we have passed through Christ, not according to our character, emotional temperature or view that we have of the other person. Jesus is a narrow gate (Mt 7:14) because he asks for self-denial and unconditional love to others, but it is the only one that leads to life.
The sheep will recognize the voice of the true shepherd. This is literally true. A man was brought before a judge in India, accused of stealing a sheep. His accuse brought evidence to prove the sheep was his, but the prisoner also had witnesses, and it was by no means easy to decide whose claim was the just and right one. The judge suddenly thought of the habits of shepherds in tending their flocks and ordered the animal to be brought into court. One man, he sent into an adjoining room, while the other was told to call the sheep, to test whether it knew not the voice of the stranger, and remained unmoved; but the prisoner, growing impatient in the other room, he made a “chuck, chuck”, a peculiar sound with his mouth, on which the sheep bounded away towards the sound at once. This “chuck” was the peculiar call he had used in tending his flock, and it decide clearly at once that he was the right and lawful owner.
When you try to speak to a child who does not know you, he or she will most likely either ignore you, run away to his or her mommy, or even cry.
The sheep will recognize the voice of the true shepherd. This statement is important. It goes beyond what the Old Testament taught, saying that God’s law is written on our hearts –I will write my laws on their hearts and minds. I will be their God, and they will be my people (Jer 31:33)- and makes us understand that it is incarnated in the person of Christ, which makes it more humane, more natural (and we could say more supernatural) to know and follow God’s will.
How do I know God has really spoken to me? How do I know it was not just my imagination, but that it was really Him? We can discern the inaudible messages from God through what experience teaches us:
1. God’s message is usually something unexpected (in the form and in the timing), it catches us off guard, and it contains something that is clearly against our will and preferences. We cannot confuse this with any form of “repression,” for God always calls to do something new, to put into action what was dormant within me. This characteristic of being something unexpected goes beyond purely rational processes, and occurs as it did with the first Christians (1st Reading). We are cut to the heart, which is another way of describing the Stigmatization, the painful mark by fire, in the soul and spirit, that puts us in a state of alert and makes us walk, with a compassion that is no longer the natural one of every human being, but the one felt by divine persons. As St. Paul said, Do you not know that you are the temple of the Holy Spirit. He dwells in you and speaks in you with ineffable groanings!
This fact of being unexpected and opposed to my instincts (like forgiving and loving an enemy) is probably the most unequivocal hallmark of the new and abundant life that the Good Shepherd seeks to grant us. It is like an unexpected visit.
2. It fits with the life and personality of Christ. Continuing with the metaphor of the unexpected visit: After opening the door to the unsuspected visitor, we realize who he is, his personality, his intentions. We recognize that he wants to invite us to a new life. It doesn’t matter if we thought we were already his disciples. He wraps us in a new peace that the world cannot give, and that comes only from Him, a Beatitude that is the breath of the Holy Spirit in our sails (Spiration). We know then that the Good Shepherd is visiting us, ready to lead us to the green pastures. Not only that, but he also makes us understand that everything else is neither necessary nor worthwhile (Purification), even if it is something good and beautiful.
This exclusive nature of his invitation, this call to not being distracted by other things, confirms to me that I am hearing his voice in the Gospel, in the example of a person, or in the suffering and dreams of my fellowmen.
3. What happens when the visit is over? When I meditate on the experience I have been through, on the more or less intense moments I have lived, I see that the consequences are lasting, and that I perceive my life and the lives of others differently.
I am sure that he will not abandon me in the difficult moments, that when the wolf attacks, he will not disappear. And then, I enjoy a bliss that is not temporary or a pseudo-happiness but lasting joy.
At the same time, I feel the need to share this meeting with others.
A few weeks ago, a young man from my family attended a concert and was greeted with a special greeting by his favorite singer. He has told everyone, over and over again, at every meal, on every social network to all the neighbors and friends. Of course, this is a shadow of what happens to us when we truly encounter Christ. When we have an authentic encounter with Christ, no one needs to remind us that we are to live and preach the Gospel. Paraphrasing St. Paul, we would say that we cannot avoid it, we cannot do anything else.
Jesus is a narrow gate, but who else has words of eternal life?