FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
1 Jn 3,1-2
The center of today’s liturgy is occupied with the evangelical image of Christ, the Good Shepherd (gospel), cornerstone of God’s saving plan (first reading), that loves and knows his sheep, called “to be like him because we shall she him as he really is” (second reading). Christ Shepherd gives unity to the community of the disciples and is source of solidarity for the Church that journeys throughout history.
The first reading (Acts 4,8-12) is the discourse that Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, directs to the Jewish authorities after having cured the paralytic in the Temple. The apology is oriented toward the announcement of the “Name” of Jesus. It concludes, in effect, with this phrase: “For of all the names in the world given to men, this is the only one by which we can be saved” (v. 12). It is important to remember the conception of “name” in the ancient world. The person, his or her being and destiny are expressed in a name; between the name and the person exist an essential relationship. The name of Jesus (in Hebrew Yeshúa), effectively, means to say: Yahweh saves. Peter affirms with clarity that the exclusivity and universality of God’s salvation is linked to the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The prophet Joel had announced that in the last days “all that invoke the name of Yahweh would be saved” (Joel 3,5). Thus, salvation obtained through the invocation of the name of Yahweh is realized through faith in Jesus, that has received from God “a name that is above every other name” (Philippians 2,9). It is this Name that the apostles have to proclaim to every corner of the world in the Acts of the Apostles.
The second reading (1 Jn 3,1-2) stresses that the love of God is the primordial and inexhaustible source of our Christian hope. Surrounded by this infinite love, we have arrived “already” in being children of God, and even if it has not yet been made manifest, what we are. (v. 3a). This tension between the “now” and “not yet” marks all of Christian existence, oriented toward the fullness of the participation of divine life: “we shall be like him because we shall se him as he really is” (v. 3b).
The gospel (Jn 10,11-15) begins with the phrase: “I am the good shepherd” (ego eimi ho poimên ho kalós) (v. 11a). Literally, the Greek expression sounds like: “I am the shepherd, the good.” The adjective “good” translates the Greek adjective kalós, (good or beautiful), that does not express here the idea of meekness or affability, with which is frequently associated with the figure of Jesus, shepherd. The adjective kalós indicates in the New Testament the quality of a thing or of a person, that are fully that which they ought to be or that realize to the point of perfection their function. From here kalós can also be translated as beautiful. This adjective is used in expressions as “good land” (Mk 4,20), a “good tree” that gives “good fruits” (Mt 7,17s), the “good wine” (Jn 2,10), the “good words” of Jesus (Jn 10,32), a “good administrator” (1 Pt 4,10), “the good soldier of Christ” (2 Tm 2,3), etc. In John’s gospel, the adjective kalós refers always to Jesus (or to his mission). In this text, kalós, underlines the fullness of the saving work realized by the messianic shepherd. Jesus is the Good Shepherd, the only shepherd that leads men and women to the fullness of life and salvation.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd because “disposes” of his life in favor of his sheep and inaugurates with them new relationships of mutual knowledge in love. Jn 10,11b normally is translated: “The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.” However, the Greek verb used is not “to lay down.” A closer translation of the original Greek would be: “the Good Shepherd ‘disposes’ of his life in favor of his sheep” (11 b). The Greek verb tíhêmi (literally “to place,” “to put,” “to dispose of something”), that appears in the 10th chapter, verses 11,15,17,18, we translate it as “to dispose of.” The idea that John wants to underline and that is at the base of all of these verses, is that Jesus “disposes” of his life with absolute liberty, integrating in his existence the confrontation with death. Once the moment has arrived, he lays down his life to take it up again, according to the power and the command received from the Father (Jn 10,17-18). Jesus in the fourth gospel, “lives with death” (X. Léon-Dufour). Death is not the only term of his existence, but a reality that is in the heart of his very life. Jesus does not grasp for his existence, does not hold on to his life like something he possessed, but separates himself from it without ceasing. “Disposes” of it with liberty, to give it.
The good shepherd “is one who lays down his life for his sheep” (v. 11b) that is to say, “in favor of his sheep” (Greek: hypér tôn probátôn). The Greek prepositions hypér followed by the genitive, means “for the favor of,” “in favor of.” It never has the meaning of “in place of,” that is to say, does not imply the idea of substitution. It does not want to affirm that Jesus shepherd dies on time for his sheep. The perspective of this Johannine text is not the forgiveness of sins, but “knowledge” between the sheep and the shepherd. The shepherd saves his sheep from a global situation of obscurity and distancing, more than from a moral fault. John’s gospel only refers to unbelief, as the root of all sins. In the text the sheep represent believers that have been called by Jesus to faith, freeing them from darkness. In synthesis, the expression of verse 11 b, it is not necessary to understand it like in other texts of the NT (Philemon 13; 1 Cor 15,29; 2 Cor 5,14-15), where it is affirmed that Jesus offers his life in place of sinners, nor is it necessary to interpret the figure of the Good Shepherd beginning from the known parable of the shepherd and the lost sheep of Luke 15, the key being merciful forgiveness. The Johannine idea is closer to a theological description of faith and of following of Christ: Jesus is the authentic shepherd because he lives and dies in the service of the sheep, gives him life for them and knows them individually them with a loving knowledge.
“The Good Shepherd is not like the hired man (misthôtos), that neither is true shepherd nor owner of this sheep” (v. 12a). The figure of the hired man or mercenary stands out, by contrast, to the figure of the shepherd, that in an excess of gratitude knows and loves his sheep until laying down his life for them. “The hired man, abandons the sheep and runs away as soon as he sees a wolf coming, and then the wolf attacks and scatters the sheep” (Jn 12b). The mention of the wolf serves to describe the danger to which the sheep are exposed. Probably, it was necessary to think of the constant risks that the disciple of Jesus underwent, tempted to abandon the faith and to run away from the only shepherd. At the beginning of v. 14, the theme is taken up again of the Good Shepherd that knows his sheep, while at the end of v. 15 another time is spoken of giving his life for the sheep. Between these two well-known themes, John inserts a new and revolutionary idea: the reciprocal knowledge between the Shepherd and his sheep. The verb “to know” (in Greek: ginôskein) does not mean a purely intellectual knowledge. It conserves the meaning of the Hebrew verb yada’, that expresses an existential knowledge, practical and affective, that is to say, through life, communion and affective relationship with the other. In biblical mentality, to know something means to have a concrete experience of something, and to know someone means to enter a personal relationship with that person. The knowledge that unites Jesus with his sheep is a knowledge of love. A knowledge of love in two directions, Jesus knows his own, giving them eternal life (10,27-28), and his own known him through a knowledge that overflows from faith in him (14,7.9; 17,3) and that is true communion with him. This link is based in the knowledge of reciprocal and eternal love between the Father and the Son: “I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father known me and I know the Father” (v. 15a). The relationship between the Shepherd and the sheep assumes, therefore an infinite theological dimension. The knowledge of reciprocal love that is at the root of the relationship between Jesus and the disciple, is not only nor principally a psychological experience or an intellectual knowledge between a master and his disciples. The model and the source of such a knowledge is the reciprocal knowledge of Christ and the Father. The communion between the disciples and Jesus is a participation in the communion existing between Jesus and the Father. The life of each Christian and the entire life of the Church is founded in a personal contact with Christ and is essentially, an experience of communion and of dialogue.