By FATHER DONALD DILGER
Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year A
First Reading: Acts 2:14a, 36-41; Response: Psalm 23:1-3a, 3b-4, 5, 6; Second Reading: 1 Peter 2:20b-25; Gospel: John 10:1-10
The first reading continues a series (three Sundays) taken from Simon Peter’s homily immediately after the Pentecost event. The reading begins with Luke’s introduction to the homily, “Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice, and proclaimed….” Next, it moves on to the final verses of the homily and the overwhelming sequel, “Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about 3,000 persons were added that day,” to the Christian movement. Should the number 3,000 be taken as an accurate count? Probably not. A concordance to the New Testament reveals that 3,000 was commonly used in the Bible for a large number — 32 times! Luke himself indicates in the Prologue to his gospel that he was a second- or third-generation Christian; there is no evidence that he was present at the Jewish feast of Pentecost – 50-or-so years before he composed his Acts of Apostles. The homilies of Acts were composed by Luke decades after the events in which he places them. They were directed at the real life situations of his time.
Peter addresses the whole House of Israel. Luke is speaking to all Jews at a time (the 80s of the first century) when there were bitter debates and sometimes violent confrontations between Christian missionaries and missionaries of Judaism. Luke proclaims that “Jesus whom you crucified,” is Lord and Christ (their long awaited Messiah). The title “Lord” is a reference to Psalm 110:1: “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand . . . .’” Christian interpretation saw Jesus’ exaltation in those words. Therefore, that they proclaimed Jesus as Lord and “seated at the right hand of the Father….whom you crucified,” is inept in the context, since Peter is speaking to Jews from the whole Roman Empire who were on pilgrimage in Jerusalem for Passover. They had nothing to do with the death of Jesus. Luke depicts the crowds “cut to the heart,” and asking, “What are we to do….?” The response is a standard Christian response: “Repent and be baptized … in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins.” Luke adds the result of Christian baptism: “….and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
The response psalm usually picks up a theme from the first reading. Not in this liturgy. Instead, Psalm 23 reflects the shepherd theme of the second reading and the gospel. The psalmist chants the first verse, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” This may be the most familiar of the psalms, but that familiarity is often restricted to the first verse. The verb want expresses not so much desire, but rather lack or need. Thus, because the Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall lack because he provides what his sheep need — green pastures, water, rest, right paths, protection from evil, always by my side. The metaphor changes from rural to domestic. He spreads a table before me, while my foes look on. He refreshes me by anointing my head with oil. “My cup overflows” – we assume with a good table wine.
The second reading continues a series from the First Letter of St. Peter. The reading implies that the Christians in the area of what is today the nation of Turkey were suffering some kind of persecution. The author interprets their suffering as a grace from God – if they suffer patiently. The example is Jesus, who suffered for them even though, “he committed no sin, nor was there any deceit in his mouth.” This echoes Isaiah 53:9, part of a poem describing the sufferings of a servant of God who gives his life for his people. The author describes Jesus’ suffering and his willingness to do so. His wounds are our healing. He closes with a shepherd/sheep theme: “For you had gone astray like sheep, but have now returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.”
The two parables of today’s gospel continue the themes of shepherd and sheep. Actors in the first parable: shepherd, sheep, thief, robber, stranger, gatekeeper. The sheep are enclosed for the night in the sheepfold — a hedged or fenced area. Thief and robber climb over the fence instead of walking in through the gate. Only the shepherd enters through the gate because the gatekeeper knows him and opens it to him. The sheep know his voice like a pet dog knows the voice of its caregiver. As some farmers have names for their animals, so does the shepherd for his sheep. He calls them by name. Because they know his voice, they follow him to pasture. A stranger cannot lead them because the sheep do not recognize him.
What is John’s aim in this parable? He gives us a hint: “Although Jesus used this figure of speech, the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them.” The time is the 90s of the first century. Jesus is obviously the shepherd. The Pharisees are the great scribes of Judaism. John’s gospel reveals an ongoing struggle between the Christian movement and Judaism. John is often extremely non-ecumenical with opponents. They would not have appreciated being compared to thieves, robbers and strangers. The struggle between the two sides is about converts — the sheep. Matthew’s gospel can be as harsh as John’s. Matthew 23:15: “A curse on you, Scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You travel over sea and land to make one convert, and when you have done so, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” It was statements like this, taken out of the context of the time, that gave rise to abominable antisemitism among Christians, and was finally and officially rejected by the Church during Vatican II.
John decides to develop the gate theme from the first parable. Jesus says, “I am the gate for the sheep.” John repeats the attack on opponents: “All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate.” The symbolism is clear from the custom of Palestinian shepherds. After gathering the sheep into an enclosure for the night, the shepherd sleeps across the opening. The punchline attributed to Jesus: “Whoever enters through me will be saved.” John adds the purpose of Jesus’ mission: “I came that they may have life, and have it more abundantly.”