Commentary to the 4th Sunday of Easter
The best-known image of Jesus is that of the Good Shepherd in the midst of his flock, with the sheep on his shoulders. It is always the most appreciated image by Christians. But note right away that the gospel today does not really speak of the 'Good Shepherd', but of the 'Real, authentic Shepherd'.
The adjective used is not 'agazós' = good, but 'καλ?ς' - charming, beautiful, lovely. In fact, the evangelist does not want to talk about the goodness of Jesus, but about his charm. The charm that we are then called to reproduce in our faces. We love beauty, we are attracted by charm.
The author of Sirach says in chapter 40: "Beauty and grace are a pleasure for the eyes, but even better is a green field" (40:22). We love the sunrise, the rising of the sun, we contemplate the mountains, the sea, the flowers, the grace with which the wind moves the trees like a dance. What do the writers, the poets, the musicians do? They translate beauty into their language. Why is everything that is beautiful appreciated? Because beautiful things are a reflection of the infinite beauty of God. We are made for beauty, because we are made for God.
There is an expression that we would all like to be told about us: "What a lovely person!" It means, a nice person, educated, helpful, gentle, respectful. A lovely person. We would all like that to be said about us. And Jesus has said of his disciples that they should be lovely people ... when he tells them "you are the light of the world” so they could see your beautiful works. The translation says: 'good' ... NO – it should be lovely. And, then, when Jesus presented himself as the Lovely Shepherd, the leaders of the Jews were outraged, they took him for a furious madman and at the end sought to stone him. Why? In a place where everyone is bad, ugly and sore and a lovely person arrives... previously they did not realize that they were bad, ugly, but when a beautiful person comes they realize their condition. They become aware of their condition. They can also be disturbed with the presence of a person so different from them.
In the Old Testament the prophets spoke of the shepherds of Israel. Ezekiel in chapter 34 describes these figures of the village guides with the image of the shepherds and says: "Woe to the shepherds of Israel that they kill the sheep instead of feeding them ... they do not strengthen the weak, nor they heal the sick ... nor seek the lost! They are cruel, violent people ... the flock is disbanded and they are prey to all the wild beasts ... ."
Facing this situation Jesus will say that the crowd was "like sheep without a shepherd." And at this moment, a lovely, beautiful shepherd appears. And those who were bad shepherds were upset because they wanted to perpetuate the present situation. Everything worked well for them. All were equal and, therefore, they did not even realize they were bad shepherds. Listen to how Jesus presents himself to these guides of the people of Israel.
"At that time, Jesus said: I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
This expression will appear several times in today`s text: "I am the Shepherd ... the lovely one": "? ποιμ?ν ? καλ?ς". “ho poinén ho calós”. First of all: "I am ...". It is a very important expression because the self-presentation of God is the name by which God presented himself to Moses: "I am." And, therefore, when Jesus uses this expression, it means: 'here I present the face of God' - the face of a lovely God, a face to contemplate.... For there is also a face of God that is 'bad'.
A survey was made in the United States and it turned out that atheists were very few: only 5%. But only 22% had a benevolent image of God: a God that is good and only good. The rest, 67%, had a distorted image of God: an authoritarian, distant God, who is not interested in our problems; a condemning God, a righteous God, a punishing God. And this bad image of God is the origin of a society that is not lovely... because whoever adores this God, then wants to reproduce this face, and thus the ideal of a man is born which is the dominator, the one that is made to be served, the one that impose himself on others, those who pretends that others be under them ... because this is the image that many have of God. It is a bad image.
Therefore, when Jesus presents himself as the lovely shepherd, it means: look on my face the beautiful and lovely image of God. He is a God who is truly attractive, kind. It is important to contemplate the beauty and feel the pleasure of feeling loved unconditionally by Him. Let's see now what it is that makes the face of Jesus beautiful. And we have already heard the first characteristic of this beauty: it is the one who offers his life in favor of the sheep.
The verb used here is not: 'donate his life' because we would immediately think about the gift of his life on Calvary. Here is another verb that is used: 'τ?θημι' (tízemi) - the one who puts his life, that is, he puts forward his proposal of man –a truly beautiful, lovely man. He sets his life before us so that one can confront this beauty of man and can reproduce it.
Peter, in his first letter to the persecuted Christians of Asia Minor, says: 'Be lovely in our conduct towards the pagans.' You must reproduce the face of the Lovely Shepherd. And then there will be those who speak ill of you, the evildoers, but you must respond with beautiful works.' Let's now listen how those who are not shepherds are described in the gospel.
"A hired man, who is not a shepherd and whose sheep are not his own, sees a wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away, and the wolf catches and scatters them. This is because he works for pay and has no concern for the sheep.”
To highlight another characteristic of the Lovely Shepherd, Jesus introduces the description of the hired man and puts it in opposition to the image of the shepherd. The hired man does not get personally involved in a passionate way with the life of the flock. The only thing that interests him is payment at the end of the day. He is not interested in the fate of the sheep, he does not worry anymore. It is the contrast between acting for interest and free love.
A love that is one of the characteristics of the beauty of Jesus of Nazareth. And he proposes to each one of us this beauty: that of gratuitous love. Instinctively, we choose to act for interest. When we do something, instinctively we think about our benefit, what advantages I will have of what I am doing. At least someone will realize that I am doing something good. Then, when we retreat and think, even for the long run, about our profit, we blur this beauty that we should reproduce on our faces.
The beauty of the lovely shepherd who is Jesus of Nazareth who has acted in complete gratuitousness. And, by the way, there are many people who are beautiful in this way. Think, for example, in those Christians who spend the weekend dedicated to the life of their community, working in the parish, or engaging in volunteering service, working with those who need help.
This is a fact. Perhaps we have also felt that someone is very lazy, seeing what these 'beautiful' people do and they get upset about this beauty, about this gratuity ... and say: "Well, if he does it is because he likes it, otherwise he would not be bother." These 'beautiful' people ignore him and continue to work, even without expecting any recognition for the work they do ... not even any recognition on behalf of his parish priest.
These people who act for free because they are happy seeing that someone is happy, reflect on their faces the beauty of their Shepherd. What is it that the hired people do – those who are not interested in the flock? They see the wolf coming –the traditional enemy of the sheep– representing the forces of evil, the hostile forces… and they leave. What does the wolf do? The wolf will not kill the sheep. It cannot kill them because it cannot destroy the life of the Eternal that is present in every human being but can disperse the sheep from the flock. And then they no longer follow the beautiful shepherd. The wolf can disperse them. It can make them deviate from the path.
Sometimes we speak of the youth who have gone astray or of the perverted society. This is the result of what the wolf does. And the mercenaries, the hired men, those who work for interest, are disinterested in what happens; they think of themselves. We have a whole spirituality of the past that grew thinking about the merits accumulated in heaven. And those who did something good, deep down they did it out of interest.
It is a very subtle selfishness. This selfishness makes us gross, bad. The one who works, the one who does good, does it for free because love is beautiful. Therefore, the one who loves does not think about himself. Think about the situation where are the brothers and sisters who may be in danger because of the wolf. And the one who loves must be attentive to these wolves.
Each era has had its wolves. They have always had a name, but most of the time they are anonymous and therefore more harmful. It is important to be able to identify some of these wolves, because they are dangerous. For example, the wolves that introduce into society the moral deterioration, for whom there is no distinction between what is right and what is wrong ... "everyone does it" ... the meaning of what makes us 'beautiful' and what makes us 'gross' is lost.
They are wolves who embody a false model of man, whose ideal of life is 'I do what I want'. The one who divulges this conception is a wolf because he does evil. He or she removes the joy of living. Removes the 'beauty' of society, because the 'beautiful' person is the one who loves, not the one who only does what he likes. They are also wolves that deform the taste of beauty, show as beautiful what instead is gross. The mercenary, the hired man ... who thinks that God will reward him, will pay him at the end of his life, think only of himself.
Instead, the one who wants to reproduce the face of the Shepherd, is attentive to what happens around him and watches the wolves that can do evil to the brothers and sisters. This is an obligation of those who preside over the Christian community. Therefore, when a mentality contrary to the gospel appears, they must denounce it because it is dangerous. Also parents should worry about these wolves. They certainly care about some wolves, but not others.
Sometimes they do not even realize that, following certain life proposals, certain behaviors, your children will become gross, bad, not beautiful. When one wants to start an affectionate relationship, what is it done? The young man strives to present himself 'beautiful'. The young man who did not care about shaving, falls in love and he shaves three times a day, because he wants to present himself beautifully, to conquer the loved one. Jesus wants all of us to get involved in a spousal relationship of love.
This is the image that the bible uses. There is no need for a report as it happens with the hired man. When the spirituality of Jesus is accepted, it is not like in the past when we had the spirituality of the 'merits' - this had its time. One does not do good to receive a pay at the end of life. This is the most subtle selfishness. Participation with free spousal love with God and with Christ is expressed in the bible with a very important verb: 'to know'. The verb 'to know' is used to indicate spousal love.
The deep knowledge that one has of the other, the husband and the wife. This is also the image used by Jesus in today's text. Let's listen.
"I am the good shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I will lay down my life for the sheep."
We have heard four times mentioned the verb 'to know': "I am the good shepherd, I and I know mine and mine know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father”. In the bible this word has a special meaning. It indicates the intimate relationship between man and woman in their spousal encounter. It is called 'knowledge'. The sexual relationship between animals is not called 'knowledge' – it is only the response to an instinct. Sometimes it happens between humans that sexual intercourse is just an instinctive response that does not lead to the knowledge of reciprocal love and, therefore, is not human expression.
The 'knowledge' that takes place in the human spousal encounter, leads to discover the interiority of the other: what gives the person joy, his or her desires, his or her thoughts, his or her dreams and the two lives are tuned into a single life. This is also what happens in the knowledge of God. If you enter into an intimate relationship of love, your life becomes an expression of God’s life that is love and only love.
Jesus goes on to say what is the characteristic of this life in which he is involved, because he is the Only Begotten of the Father and, therefore, also involve all those who accept his proposal of a beautiful life. He says: "I give my life for the sheep." It does not mean that he dies instead of the sheep. NO. It means that he makes his life a gift, because this is the life of the Father that is present in him. And it is in this life that he involves all of us. There are those whom he wants to involve in this knowledge of love with him and with the Father. Are these only some ... the privileged ... the chosen people? Let's listen.
"I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd."
To understand these words of Jesus, we must place them in the context of the discourse that he is pronouncing. He has said that he has come to take away his sheep that are found inside a fold. To get them out of this fold. The original text calls this place 'α?λ?ς' = 'aulé', that does not mean fold, but a place where the sheep have been held by thieves and assailants who assault and kill them.
What kind of place is the one from which Jesus has brought out his sheep? It is the place of the religious institution that preaches a false relationship with God. Jesus came to take his sheep out of this enclosure because there they are abused. It is about the religious institution that preaches a false relationship with God. What was the religious practice of the Jerusalem temple? It was the relationship with the Lord to give him something, offer sacrifices in order to obtain his favors. Even the good works that one did it was to get something from God, his blessing, his favors. NO. This is not the relationship with God that Jesus brought.
It is necessary to leave that place. Unfortunately, in this place of the false image of God there are still many people who are inside. And that are kept inside by mercenaries who, without even realizing it, they keep people enslaved by a false image of God. Jesus had a very clear prophetic gesture, when he drove everyone out of the temple. This was the place where he did not want people to stay. Then he goes on to say that other sheep that are not inside this enclosure, but they can be inside other enclosures and also to them he must guide. After having got rid of a false image of God and a false image of religion, Jesus says that there are other enclosures, religious and lay, that keep people in bondage, and he wants to take them out. Imagine some of these enclosures: certain archaic cultures; certain traditions that humiliate, that enslave men and women ... these are folds.
And those who have assimilated the thought, the love of Christ must strive to bring out these people from these enclosures. Then also the enclosure of a hedonistic mentality where each one thinks about himself and enjoys life. It is trap. And those who are inside must be freed from this mentality. The enclosure of moral corruption where one is inside, and people
are exploited by those interested in keeping them inside. They must be taken out. Christianity is a universal religion that is interested in everyone. And Jesus makes his proposal of freedom and he says: they will listen to my voice, and a single flock and a single shepherd will be formed. They will hear his voice: it indicates his proposal for a new man. Jesus does not impose his image of beauty on anyone, for beauty is attractive in itself. He introduces himself as a beautiful, lovely shepherd and whoever believes in him becomes a lovely person. He does not need to raise his voice or threaten. It is his person who must speak. It is important to translate well this text that has been distorted by the translation of Saint Jerome, He said: it is necessary that there be only one flock and one shepherd. Jesus did not come to take out a person from a pen to put him in another pen. NO. The sheep must leave all the pens within which the mercenaries want to keep them slaves. Jesus loves people completely free, people who accept his proposal of beauty and accept him as the only Shepherd.
Let's hear how Jesus concludes his proposal of a beautiful, lovely person:
"This is why the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again. This command I have received from my Father."
The beauty of the shepherd is synthesized by Jesus in his last words as we read them in today's gospel. "I give my life. No one takes it from me"... Jesus says that this mandate of the Father comes from within him. The command that Jesus receives does not come from outside, it comes from his identity as Son of God and since the Father is love and only love, this is his life and this divine life is in fullness in Jesus and thus his life becomes a gift; for love is placing one's person at the service of the joy and life of the beloved person. Jesus says that he 'offers his life' makes it available with a free act of love, because love is free.
One does not love – does not give one’s life out of obligation, but it is the very nature of a child of God that invites you to donate your life. Life, anyway, ends… we lose it and the courage of Jesus is that he does not keep it for himself. If we want to preserve our life, we must donate it freely. To do it as Jesus did, to let go from within, the Spirit take us to this act, to this gesture of love. Only then will our life be truly beautiful. We will be really beautiful and lovely people reproducing the image of the shepherd.
I wish everyone a good Easter and a good week.