by f. Luis CASASUS, General Superior of the men’s branch of the Idente missionaries.
Europe, April 25, 2021. | Fourth Sunday of Easter
Acts of the Apostles 4: 8-12; First Letter of John 3: 1-2; Saint John 10: 11-18.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus refers to a situation well known in his time. Many farmers, who had to do both agricultural and shepherding work, were obliged to have hired shepherds. The responsibilities of these included the obligation to face small wild animals, such as a hyena or a wolf, but they were not supposed to fight a thief, nor were they supposed to srruggle with a lion, a jackal or a bear, which at that time lived in the valley of the Jordan.
In other words, the hired shepherd was not obliged to lay down his life for the sheep.
Let us think about it: it is clear that Christ tells us that the shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep considers their lives more important than his own. He is not simply an excellent and responsible worker, but someone who is willing to suffer serious harm, or to die, because he values the lives of the sheep more than his own. He is not just fulfilling a contract. He is not following a law, or even a calculated prudence: let the lion eat a sheep or two and the rest of the flock and I will be safe. The shepherd Jesus is talking about believes that the life of one of those sheep is more valuable than his own.
Perhaps the sheep in question is a particularly reckless and difficult sheep. A sheep that is not very obedient or intelligent, that is always making trouble and is also not very profitable, because it is almost always sick. Do I really believe that its life is more worth than mine?
In today’s First Reading Peter had just healed a beggar. The people who witnessed the miracle were amazed, but the rulers were offended because Peter had said that it was Jesus who healed the man— the same Jesus whom they had crucified. No wonder they arrested him! That was a clear way of giving one’s life, of allowing his own plans to be interrupted for the sake of saving a person. Even if most of us are not imprisoned for doing good, we must be prepared to give up many personal projects, even generous ones, to save a single person.
As Pope Francis said, What matters for Jesus is, above all, reaching out to save those far off, healing the wounds of the sick and restoring everyone to God’s family (February 15, 2015). As our Holy Father often reminds us, there is an intimate relationship between our being filled with God’s love and our desire to do good deeds for people. The more we are filled with God’s love, the more we will want to give back to him— with gifts of praise and gifts of deeds. Unlike Peter, it’s doubtful that we will be arrested and put in jail for doing good deeds in the name of Jesus. But like Peter, our good deeds will have the same effect on people today that they had on the people back then. They will melt people’s hearts. They will help them believe that God’s love is real and is powerful. They may spark some opposition, but not even that will diminish the power of your witness.
What or who are the wild beasts that threaten the flock? First of all and paradoxically, as Ezekiel teaches us, they are the bad shepherds, those who try to take advantage of the flock in many ways: to feed their fame, or to make the sheep an instrument of their ambition:
Look, I am against the shepherds, and I will demand my sheep from their hand. I will no longer let them be shepherds; the shepherds will not feed themselves anymore. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, so that they will no longer be food for them (Ez 34: 10)
This is how Jesus found his people: He views them as harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd (Mt 9:36).
When we speak of giving one’s life for our neighbor, we should not think that it is only a gesture of those who lead the Church, nor is it a unique and extraordinary act in our lives.
In the first place, Jesus does not ask those who want to imitate him in his way of doing good to learn to perform miracles or to invent parables, but to leave everything, as he said to the rich young man and in the way Simon, Andrew, James and John abandoned their nets.
And second, human ambition is continuous, inexhaustible, like that of the corrupt leaders of Israel. There is no limit to taking advantage of the innocent at all times by thought, word, deed and omission.
This implies that giving one’s life for the sheep must be a continuous, permanent action. The danger that they will be exploited, deceived and abused is not occasional, but constant. Every disciple can have a heart of a true shepherd and must cultivate the unconditional generosity of the Master with regards to persons. Just as charity has no limits, neither do faith and hope, that is why the Holy Spirit prepares those who wish to imitate the Good Shepherd with the wisdom to know how to act with a stray sheep, the fortitude to persevere in its defense and the piety to act with the intention of leading it to the flock where it can live fully, with the company it needs and thus not die in solitude.
He knows our voice and we know his. Our experience tells us that, little by little, above the noise of the world, we learn to distinguish his voice, which tells us exactly what we need (perhaps not what we wanted) to hear. I remember my brother telling of his experience at a youth camp. The day of the family visit, with kids making lots of fun noises, he was speaking to a couple of fathers when all of a sudden one of the dads took off and returned shortly with his son. His son had fallen down and had started crying. My brother looked at him and said, There were all kinds of kids making noise. How did you know it was your son who got hurt? He look at him and said, I know my son’s voice.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd who looks out for us. If we listen to Jesus voice we will not get lost. But, even if we do get lost, Jesus is looking for us.
Knowing oneself to be loved is what can most strongly move a person’s heart to love. This explains why Christ gives us so many proofs of the surrender of his life, including his death on the Cross. But today’s Gospel gives us a permanent and sensitive sign that we are loved: Christ calls each one of us by our own name.
According to the apocryphal Acts of Peter, Peter flees from crucifixion in Rome at the hands of the government, and along the road outside the city, he meets the risen Jesus.
Peter asked Him weher he was going (Quo vadis?). Jesus said: I am going to be crucified again. Peter at once turned back , realizing that the cross was to be for him too. Peter was crucified in Rome in 66 or 67. By his own request he was hung on the Cross with his head downward.
Being aware of the love that Christ manifested to him personally, showing His willingness to give his own life in the face of Peter’s cowardice, made him turn around and imitate the Master.
That is one of the messages of today’s Second Reading, the free gift of divine life. The word of God is always effective; if he calls someone his son, this person will actually become one. In biblical language, sonship, filiation implies the participation in the life of him from whom one is generated. So the Christian is, in the world, a presence of the divine and, like any son, reproduces the likeness and the love of the Father.
Jesus is explicitly stating his intention to form one flock, in other words, to restore and promote the lost unity.
Let us note that we human beings, however generous and compassionate we may be, fail to act appropriately in times of serious difficulty, especially in the face of signs of conflict and disunity, we respond clumsily, and typically in two different ways:
* Ignoring the problem or giving it too little or too much importance. We may use fine words, which rarely resolve the situation. Sometimes our anger or discomfort prevents peace from being made and harmony from being built. In reality, these are all forms of avoidance. Because negative emotions cause us discomfort and distress, we may try to tamp them down, hoping that our feelings will dissipate with time.
* Condemning one party and ignoring the limitations of the party we choose to support, while justifying our preference, for example by saying that we do not condemn for a personal reason, but to protect those we love.
* But there is a third alternative. Christ-like way: When two persons claimed to be right, to be victims of each other, to have been mistreated or misunderstood, as happened to some of the Apostles… Christ found a way to give his life (in this case abandoning his fame) by washing the feet of all.
One of the most painful cases of a lost sheep is that of Judas Iscariot. Judas, a follower of Jesus turned against him for mere money, only to end up taking his own life out of regret. However, Jesus’ held the Lord’s supper with Judas at the table. He did not dismiss him, but gave him a chance to repent. Jesus’ actions towards Judas teach us three things:
– Jesus did not hide from the conflict. He addressed him directly with facts, and not emotions.
– He gives Judas the chance to rethink his actions and come back to relationship with Jesus.
– We all know the end of the story. Uniting people always requires the one who builds the unity to leave something of his own life, physically, emotionally or in terms of projects.
In this regard, a well-known story comes to mind.
An old man used to meditate early in the morning under a big tree on the bank of a river. One morning, after he had finished his meditation, the old man opened his eyes and saw a scorpion floating helplessly in the water. As the scorpion was washed closer to the tree, the old man quickly stretched himself out on one of the long roots that branched out into the river and reached out to rescue the drowning creature. As soon as he touched it, the scorpion stung him. Instinctively the man withdrew his hand.
A minute later, after he had regained his balance, he stretched himself out again on the roots to save the scorpion. This time the scorpion stung him so badly with its poisonous tail that his hand become swollen and bloody and his face contorted with pain.
At that moment, a passerby saw the old man stretched out on the roots struggling with the scorpion and shouted, Hey, stupid old man, what’s wrong with you? Only a fool would risk his life for the sake of an ugly, evil creature. Don’t you know you could kill yourself trying to save that ungrateful scorpion? The old man turned his head, and looking into the stranger’s eyes he had said calmly, My friend, just because it is the scorpion’s nature to sting, that does not change my nature to save.
Today’s Gospel concludes with the unexpected but unappealable paradox of the First Reading: Christ is the cornerstone that was surprisingly rejected by the builders and his death, our death, the equally surprising path to a full life: the fate of the one who gives life is not death, but the fullness of life. St. Peter reminds us that we must not exhaust ourselves uselessly searching for other truths, other affections, other sensations foreign to the Spirit of the Gospel: There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved.