This upcoming Lord’s Day is often known as “Good Shepherd Sunday,” since each year the Gospel reading is taken from John 10, the “Good Shepherd Discourse.” It’s also often observed as a day of prayer for vocations to the priesthood and religious life, since priests and religious are visible manifestations to us of Christ in his role as the Good Shepherd.
Most of the Readings are tied together by a shepherding theme.
1. The First Reading continues the traditional Christian practice of reading Acts during the season of Easter. We are up to Acts 13, the point in Acts where St. Luke begins to follow the career of St. Paul in a particular way.
There is a basic division of Acts into two parts: Acts 1-12 follows Peter’s ministry and Acts 13-28 follows Paul’s.
Luke is at pains to demonstrate that Peter and Paul are “on the same page”–they preach the same gospel. Many were accusing Paul of being an innovator in bringing the Gentiles into the Church apart from Peter. Scholars still make this accusation. Yet Luke shows that Peter and Paul are just alike in what they do and say.
This chart below shows five similarities between the two in Acts:
Both preach Davidic covenant fulfillment
Both perform indirect or mediated healings
Peter, by his shadow:
Paul, by his handkerchief:
Both struggle against a magician
Peter vs. Simon Magus:
Paul vs. Elymas:
Both dispense the Holy Spirit thru laying on of hands
Both miraculously escape from prison
On the topic of Paul’s preaching in Acts 13, notice the following references to the Davidic covenant in his sermon:
· v. 23, a reference to Jesus’ Davidic ancestry
· v. 33, alluding to the fulfillment of Psalm 2, the royal Davidic coronation hymn
· v. 34, citing Isa 55:3, which talks about the Davidic covenant being opened up to all comers.
· vv. 35-38, Paul employs the same argument that Peter employs in Acts 2:25-31: “Psalm 16:10 can’t apply to David himself. It could only apply to Jesus, who was raised from the dead.”
Ezekiel prophesied that God would restore the Davidic king and make him Shepherd of Israel once more (Ezek 34:23), so the Davidic covenant theme in Paul’s preaching is connected to the idea of Jesus as Good Shepherd.
Now we examine this Sunday’s Reading specifically:
Paul and Barnabas continued on from Perga
and reached Antioch in Pisidia.
On the Sabbath they entered the synagogue and took their seats.
Many Jews and worshipers who were converts to Judaism
followed Paul and Barnabas, who spoke to them
and urged them to remain faithful to the grace of God.
On the following Sabbath almost the whole city gathered
to hear the word of the Lord.
When the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy
and with violent abuse contradicted what Paul said.
Both Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly and said,
“It was necessary that the word of God be spoken to you first,
but since you reject it
and condemn yourselves as unworthy of eternal life,
we now turn to the Gentiles.
For so the Lord has commanded us,
I have made you a light to the Gentiles (lit. “nations),
that you may be an instrument of salvation
to the ends of the earth.”
The Gentiles (lit. “nations”) were delighted when they heard this
and glorified the word of the Lord.
All who were destined for eternal life came to believe,
and the word of the Lord continued to spread
through the whole region.
The Jews, however, incited the women of prominence who were worshipers
and the leading men of the city,
stirred up a persecution against Paul and Barnabas,
and expelled them from their territory.
So they shook the dust from their feet in protest against them,
and went to Iconium.
The disciples were filled with joy and the Holy Spirit.
Paul and Barnabas understand Jesus to be the great “Servant of the LORD” from the prophet Isaiah. They quote from one of the most famous “Servant Songs” in Isaiah 49, where God (the Father) says to the Servant (the Son):
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Isa 49:6)
The recalcitrance of some of the Jews is frustrating Paul and Barnabas’ attempt to restore Israel under the leadership of the anointed Son of David, Jesus of Nazareth, the “Servant of the LORD.” But the restoration of Israel was not the only mission of the Servant; the missionaries recall that the Servant was also sent to proclaim salvation to all the “nations” or “Gentiles.” They turn, then, from preaching mostly to the Jewish community, and redirect their efforts to the Gentiles. These Gentiles were probably “God-fearers,” that is, Gentiles who attended the Synagogue and knew quite a bit about Jewish history, theology, and teaching; yet had never received circumcision. Apparently there were large numbers of these God-fearers around the Mediterranean world, because many educated Gentiles were put off by the mythology and moral degradation of pagan worship and were attracted by the coherence and moral clarity of Judaism.
Nonetheless, the Apostle’s preaching produces a mixed reaction, with some embracing it with joy and others responding with hostility and violence. The different reactions remind us of the two brothers in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), which Luke alone tells in his “prequel” to Acts, the Gospel of Luke. The “younger son,” the prodigal, represents the Gentiles who embrace God’s mercy. The “older son” represents those among the Jews who are envious of the “younger” who is reconciled to the Father.
The experience of Paul and Barnabas in this chapter is a snapshot of the perpetual situation of the Church in the world. The Church constantly proclaims the Gospel, a message of love and salvation which is also—at the same time and for that reason—subversive, a threat to the status quo and social order. So at all times, there are those who are embracing the Church’s preaching with joy, and others who are stirring up persecution, hatred, and violence. Christ disciples, meanwhile, are always “filled with joy and the Holy Spirit,” because they know, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake.”
R. (3c) We are his people, the sheep of his flock.
Sing joyfully to the LORD, all you lands;
serve the LORD with gladness;
come before him with joyful song.
R. We are his people, the sheep of his flock.
Know that the LORD is God;
he made us, his we are;
his people, the flock he tends.
R. We are his people, the sheep of his flock.
The LORD is good:
his kindness endures forever,
and his faithfulness, to all generations.
R. We are his people, the sheep of his flock.
While there are many Todah psalms in the Psalter, Psalm 100 is unique in that it is the only psalm labeled as being specifically “A Psalm for the Thanksgiving Sacrifice” (Heb. mizmor l’todah). We have discussed previously in these posts the importance of the “Thanksgiving Sacrifice” or Todah, how it is related to the Passover and fulfilled in the Eucharist, the supreme offering of thanks.
It is interested that this one psalm that carries the Todah heading is concerned about God’s shepherding nature. It suggests that all the good things that come to us, all the acts of salvation from God that we experience, are expressions of God’s concern for us as a Shepherd for his sheep. Like so many other psalms, this one, too, gives thanks to God for his hesed, his covenant faithfulness that endures to all generations.
3. The Second Reading is Rev 7:9, 14b-17:
I, John, had a vision of a great multitude,
which no one could count,
from every nation, race, people, and tongue.
They stood before the throne and before the Lamb,
wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands.
Then one of the elders said to me,
“These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress;
they have washed their robes
and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
“For this reason they stand before God’s throne
and worship him day and night in his temple.
The one who sits on the throne will shelter them.
They will not hunger or thirst anymore,
nor will the sun or any heat strike them.
For the Lamb who is in the center of the throne
will shepherd them
and lead them to springs of life-giving water,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
This vision of John immediately follows Rev. 7:4-8, where John sees “144,000” from all the tribes of Israel gathered before God. The “144,000” probably represents the large number of ethnic Israelites who have received Jesus Christ as the Messiah Son of David, and entered into the qahal (Hebrew) or ekklesia (Greek), that is, the Church.
The great multitude seen in today’s reading, however, represents all the Gentile nations who have entered into the Church. It is interesting that John can tell ethnic differences between these various people groups, even in heaven. This suggests that are different ethnic and cultural attributes may be good in themselves, and God may preserve them in the age to come as manifestations of his gift of beauty in diversity.
These Gentile believers have come out of the great distress and tribulation they experienced on earth. Let’s note how the both readings from Acts and Revelation share the themes of Gentile conversion and the persecution of believers.
Persecution continues and is, in fact, showing a resurgence around the world. Just recently (6 April 2013), Pope Francis, no stranger to persecution even in his homeland, made the following remarks while preaching on another passage of Acts:
“To find martyrs it isn’t necessary to go down to the catacombs or to the Colosseum: martyrs are alive now, in many countries … Christians … are persecuted for the Faith. In some countries they can’t wear a cross: if they do so they are punished. Today, in the 21st century, our Church is a Church of martyrs.”
Strikingly, in this passage of Revelation, Jesus is both “Lamb” and “Shepherd”! “The Lamb … will shepherd them.” Only the one who has made himself completely vulnerable, and indeed been abused and sacrificed himself, his fully qualified now to lead, guide, and protect the flock of God. Being a lamb is preparation for being a shepherd. “If any would be first among you … let him become the least and servant of all.”
“My sheep hear my voice;
I know them, and they follow me.
I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.
No one can take them out of my hand.
My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all,
and no one can take them out of the Father’s hand.
The Father and I are one.”
There are a couple of notable Old Testament texts that form the background of this Good Shepherd discourse in John.
We think first of all of Psalm 23, “The LORD is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside still waters, he restores my soul.” This famous Psalm is full of sacramental typology (“still waters … anoints my head with oil … prepares a table before me …”) and was extremely popular among the Fathers as a source for sacramental catechesis. This reminds us that the sacraments are key moments when the Good Shepherd touches us and cares for us.
Another less prominent but no less important Old Testament background text is Ezekiel 34, Ezekiel’s prophecy of the coming Good Shepherd:
Ezek. 34:11 “For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. 12 As a shepherd seeks out his flock when some of his sheep have been scattered abroad, so will I seek out my sheep; and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. 13 And 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 fountains, and in all the inhabited places of the country. 14 I will feed them with good pasture, and upon the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on fat pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD. 16 I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the crippled, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will watch over; I will feed them in justice.
A curious fact about this prophecy is that although the LORD swears “I myself will be the shepherd,” he later insists that he will set up only “one Shepherd” and that Shepherd will be “David,” that is, the Davidic king:
23 And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. 24 And I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the LORD, have spoken.
Ezekiel’s prophecy, therefore, mystically foreshadows the union of the LORD (the God of Israel) with the King (the Son of David) in one person. Jesus is the Son of David, yet as today’s Gospel says “I and the Father are One.” The prophecy of Ezekiel is fulfilled.
The comforting promises of this Gospel, concerning Christ the Good Shepherd who will not let his sheep perish, seem in apparent conflict with the persecution theme so evident in the First and Second Reading. If Christ is the Good Shepherd, why were Paul and Barnabas harassed? Why did the great multitude have to go through “the time of great distress”?
This paradoxical convergence of God’s shepherding care with the very real presence of persecution is already foreshadowed in the words of Psalm 23. Though Psalm 23 is unread in today’s liturgy, it seems quietly present in the background of most of the readings, especially these lines:
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil; for thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me,
In the presence of my enemies
One could ask, if the LORD is the psalmist’s Shepherd, what is he doing walking through the valley of the shadow of death in the first place? I the LORD is shepherding, why are the enemies present as the table is being prepared?
This is a great mystery. Nonetheless, it seems clear that just as the Lamb-Shepherd suffered persecution Himself, so his sheep will also “walk through the valley … of death” and eat their meals “in the presence of enemies.” The Lamb-Shepherd does not guide us around these experiences but through them. Thus, the Eucharist, the supreme Table prepared before us, is always a meal we eat with enemies looking on. In this life, the faithful will always face opposition.
May the “little flock” of God (see Luke 12:32)—persecuted, despised and mocked throughout the world—find comfort in Christ’s promises in this Sunday’s liturgy, and being detached from all desire for prosperity in this world (see Luke 12:33-34) imitate Paul and Barnabas, who despite all were still “filled with joy and the Holy Spirit” as they continued to preach about Jesus to any and all who would listen.