FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER (2023)
Acts 2:14, 36-41
1 Peter 2:20-25
The process of writing a reflection for me involves a careful, meditative reading of the Sunday readings, and perusing a handful of available commentaries, including those chosen by the editors of Give Us This Day and the Magnificat. I began my readings this week with a commentary provided by the editors of the National Catholic Reporter, which is most often done by a Sr. Mary McGone, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet. This week the reflection in NCR is by a substitute, the only time in the entire Easter season, and a person I have met, Sr. Carol Dempsey, a Caldwell Dominican sister. I knew I was in trouble when she began, after listing very appealing Spring time allusions, with these words: “The image of the divine as a good shepherd in Psalm 23 and John 10:1-10 is a beloved one. But as beloved as the image of shepherd and sheep is among biblical readers, the metaphors are problematic. Comparing the divine to a shepherd and people to sheep sets up a hierarchical relationship between humans and the divine, and reduces the intelligence of humans who, if like sheep, will always be dependent, subservient and deprived of full agency.” Okay sister, calm down. It’s only a metaphor!
Sr. Carol then takes on our second reading from the first letter of Peter, which espouses a traditional understanding of Christ’s suffering as vicarious, suffering in place of another, i.e. done for us. Sr. Carol’s contention is that an understanding of ‘vicarious’ suffering “inherently supports violence.” Indeed, Sr. Carol goes so far as to suggest a sense of vicarious suffering “normalizes violence” that “encourages the acceptance of structures and attitudes that create victims.” Okay Sister, now you have lost me, and were I to preach anything like what you wrote, I would lose my congregation as well. So much for Good Shepherd Sunday! In closing Sister, they are metaphors, just metaphors.
We follow a teacher who taught with parables, i.e. metaphors, which were seldom to be taken literally, but were used to provoke a unique insight, or jolt someone out of their ordinary way of thinking. On this Sunday, which is proverbially called Good Shepherd Sunday (since in all three cycles of readings there is a gospel from the Good Shepherd discourse in John), we are not meant to be concerned about “normalizing violence,” or worry about “hierarchical structures” which diminish human intelligence to that of dumb sheep. Rather, we are meant to wallow in the poetic metaphors so beautifully illustrated by our responsorial psalm this week, Psalm 23, the most frequently chosen psalm for funerals and funeral services:
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
In verdant pastures he gives me repose;
Beside restful waters he leads me;
He refreshes my soul.
He guides me in right paths for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk in the dark valley
I fear no evil; for you are at my side
With your rod and your staff that give me courage.”
Who doesn’t find comfort in these words written some five hundred years before Christ. The shepherd imagery is ingrained in the Judeo-Christian tradition, much like farming or fishing imagery. In John’s Good Shepherd discourse, he uses an image that is familiar to the people of his day; they knew both good and bad shepherds. So essential is the teaching and example of Jesus, that He speaks of Himself in our passage as the “gate,” through which all must enter if they wish to be saved. Jesus’ act of shepherding His people is personal, and involves no degradation of the human spirit. Rather, Jesus came into our world “that we might have life and have it more abundantly.” Jesus calls us by name, and we gladly follow Him because we “recognize His voice.”
Even our responsorial psalm alludes to the “dark valleys” that all must one day walk through, times of difficulty and distress. If Jesus, our Savior and God, goes before us as our guide, we have nothing to fear, for “by His wounds we have been healed.” In spite of the fact that we sometimes go “astray like sheep,” says 1 Peter, all we need to do is “return to the shepherd and guardian of our souls.” Christ suffered and died for us that we might have new life, a life free of the fear of suffering and death. With Christ as our Shepherd, “only goodness and kindness shall follow me all the days our our lives, and we shall dwell in the Lord for years to come” (Ps. 23). I embrace the Shepherd metaphor for all the comfort and hope it continues to bring to my life.