First Reading: Acts 2:14
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 23
Second Reading: 1 Peter 2:25
Gospel: John 10:1-10
Link to readings.
Today’s readings feature a series of themes loosely connected around the ‘Shepherd-Sheep’ image. This venerable image reaches right back to the tradition that the first king of the royal house of Judah, David, was originally a young shepherd (1 Sam 16:11-13). Instead of lording it over their subjects like the rulers of other peoples, Israelite kings were meant primarily to be shepherds for the people. Few kings lived up to this standard. But the long awaited Messiah, Son of David, was expected to be the ‘Good Shepherd’ par excellence.
Today’s Gospel (John 10:1-10) comes from the first half of an entire chapter (10) the Fourth Gospel devotes to this theme. The passage builds up to Jesus’ solemn claim (unfortunately not included in the reading): “I am the Good Shepherd” (v 11). Leading up to this is a series of related images, each of which presupposes an understanding of how shepherding functioned in ancient Palestine. During the day sheep grazed on the open hillsides under the watchful eyes of their shepherds. At nightfall the shepherds led them down to large communal sheepfolds, where mingled sheep from a number of flocks could remain safe for the night with just one gatekeeper to watch over them. At daybreak, when the shepherds returned, each would summon the sheep of the flock for which he was responsible. Recognizing the voice of their shepherd, the sheep would follow his lead out to pasture through the gate of the fold.
Inevitably there would be attempts to steal sheep from the fold during the night. Thieves would succeed only if they get into the fold by some means other than the gate and also only if they could get sheep to follow their call. Sheep attuned to their own shepherd’s voice would not follow the call of a stranger and so would not be in danger of being removed from the fold.
We can now bring this understanding to the series of images used by Jesus in the Gospel. The central idea is that of the intimate knowledge that should exist between a shepherd and sheep: he knows his sheep they recognize his voice and willingly follow his call. Jesus contrasts a ‘good shepherd’ like this with others who come only to steal, harass, and ultimately destroy sheep that do not belong to them. The contrast reflects the vicissitudes of the Johannine community as it struggled to free itself from the control of the Jewish synagogue and establish its own identity centred upon allegiance to Jesus as its only true Shepherd. Preachers today need not stress the negative but concentrate upon the appealing image of God stemming from the positive aspect of the comparison.
Within the same basic image, however, Jesus identifies himself not only with the shepherd but also with the Gate of the sheepfold: “I am the Gate of the sheepfold”. This adds a fresh dimension. If the sheep are to flourish, they have to come and go through the gate of the fold; if they stay within the fold, they will decline for lack of pasture. If they do not return to the fold but stay out in the hillsides all night, they will be at risk. So daily they have to come and go through the gate, which then becomes their means of access to both protection and and growth. By describing himself as ‘the Gate of the sheepfold’ Jesus is indicating that only through vital and continual interaction with himself will members of the community find life and growth. In this sense he ‘has come that they may have life and have it to the full’, (v. 10), that is, beyond life as mere existence, to have the ‘eternal life’ that is a share in the undying life of God. In this sense several of the verses of Psalm 22, used as the Responsorial Psalm, become very appropriate.
The Second Reading also comes from a document, 1 Peter, where the sense of the risen Lord as Shepherd is central (2:25; 5:4). However, the text appearing as the reading for today (2:20-25) appeals primarily to the image of Jesus during his passion as a sheep that stands dumb and uncomplaining before its shearers. In terms of this image, derived ultimately from Isa 53:7-9, he provides a model— and a source of hope—for believers, who frequently have to bear similar insult and trial.
In the First Reading, Acts 2:14, 36-41, we hear more of Peter’s post-Pentecost appeal to the citizens of Jerusalem to find salvation by availing themselves of the 'second chance' God is giving them.
Brendan Byrne, SJ, FAHA, taught New Testament at Jesuit Theological College, Parkville, Vic., for almost forty years. He is now Emeritus Professor at the University of Divinity (Melbourne). His commentaries on the Gospels can be found at Pauline Books and Media.