The liturgy has finished with the Resurrection stories. From now till Pentecost, the Gospel readings are taken from John with speeches at differing periods before the Passion. They show us various aspects of what living in the risen Lord means for a Christian.
Today has been called ‘Good Shepherd Sunday’. Sheep and shepherds were frequently used for comparisons, both in the Old Testament and in all four gospels. They were part of everyday life from the earliest times of the Hebrew people, who followed a pastoral way of life, closely involved with their flocks. Even in cities like Jerusalem, sheep were conspicuous, being used in Temple sacrifices. In the Bible, a shepherd became an idealized image for a king or ruler, helped by the fact that King David began life tending his father’s flocks.
Acts 2:14, 36-41
This section follows on from last week’s, concluding the speech of Peter to the crowds in Jerusalem on Pentecost day. It sets the scene by repeating the initial words of v. 14. ‘Being baptized’ is a reminder us of the Easter Vigil, and the gift of the Holy Spirit is the promise of Pentecost, so we are as it were, midway between the two great feasts. Luke describes how the crowd responded with numbers that may be a summary of several occasions, but reflect well the first days of many converts. The final words of the chapter, for no reason I can see, are omitted; they describe the activities that are still part of church life: ‘They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, and to the breaking of the bread and prayers.’ (The ‘breaking of the bread’, in Luke’s writings, is the Eucharist.)
This short psalm is a favourite of many people, showing full confidence in God’s care even in the ‘shadow of death’ – called ‘the valley of darkness’ in our translation. The first two verses have a vivid picture of sheep and shepherd. The second set changes to imagery of a feast. Many of the psalms express the singer’s sense of being surrounded by enemies and usually praying for help. In this psalm, the enemies can only watch as God sets out the abundant table for those who have followed him, while they dine in comfort with much good wine to drink. ‘Anointing’ the head is sometimes taken as a reference to ritual anointing, but in his acclaimed translation of the Psalms, Robert Alter says the text uses a different word from the ritual use, and the image indicates the luxury of a ‘sensual’ comfort in a dry climate. (People today may use ‘hair conditioners’ for a similar effect!)
Christians usually think of the final lines of dwelling in God’s house ‘for ever and ever’ as of the final blessing of heaven. Alter is probably historically correct in seeing it originally as a parallel of ‘all the days of my life’, because the belief in an everlasting afterlife was not universal in the early days of the Jewish religion. However we take the last words, the whole psalm is a reflection of utter trust living under a loving God.
1 Peter 2:20-25
St Peter in this letter has a similar theme, writing to Christians who have answered the call to baptism and now need encouragement in facing trials, which could include persecution. This is the meaning of ‘being punished while doing their duty’ – it is opponents and not God who ‘punishes’. Jesus gives himself totally in love to save and heal. The final words of sheep and shepherd lead us forward to the gospel.
Acclamation John 10:14
The Gospel Acclamation is Jesus’ self-description: ‘I am the good shepherd. I know my sheep and my sheep know me.’ Raymond E. Brown in his commentary on John, suggests the translation ‘model shepherd’ as a more accurate meaning for the Greek word. He is the true perfection of what the image of shepherd points to.
To better understand this selection, it helps to know that sheepherding at that time differed from modern practices. Rather than driving flocks with the help of sheep dogs, those moving sheep would lead them from in front, and thus it was important for the shepherd to have a close relationship with his flock. People who know sheep verify that the animals do recognise people they know and react to strangers.
Listeners at that time would have been familiar with the extended sheep-shepherd imagery of chapter 34 of Ezekiel. The prophet was denouncing the rulers, both political and religious, who were self-seeking and lacked real care for the people who depended on them. Jesus has been denouncing the Pharisees (and perhaps now includes the Roman rulers as well) as failing the ordinary people – they act more like ‘thieves and brigands’. Christ was also concerned with their refusal to recognise him as sent by God – the one who inherited the role of ‘shepherd’ in caring for the ‘sheep’.
In the first part of this extended and expanded parable – which has more details than we hear today – Jesus describes the relationship of the rightful shepherd to his flock. When this was not understood, he moves to a second image, saying that he is the ‘sheep gate’ –like the doorway the sheep go through in and out to the pasture. Elsewhere he uses the image, ‘I am the Way’. To receive the abundance of God’s blessings, we ‘go through’ Jesus.
The background again comes from the sheep-keeping practices of that time. Enclosures, often stone-walled pens, gave the animals a safe resting place at night. In the morning, the shepherd would lead them out into grazing areas, like the ‘green grasses’ of the Psalm. These places would not be fenced and he would have to look after them – as David ‘tended the flocks’ (1 Samuel 16:11). In the passage following this, Jesus mentions protection from wolves as one example. Knowing their master well, the sheep follow him in trust and rely on him as they feed or rest.
In Ezekiel’s prophecy, God, after denouncing the evil doers, promises that He himself will become the shepherd of the people. Jesus in the gospel of John makes explicit claims to equality with God, but also there are allusions like this one, that suggest he takes the role of God – the himself is that divine shepherd of the prophet.
The final words of this reading with a brief summary of Jesus’ mission in the world are ones that can be cherished and meditated on especially when faced with difficulties in life: God’s intent is always for our fullness of life, peace and joy.