4th Sunday of Easter: The Good Shepherd
When the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and with violent abuse contradicted what Paul said. Both Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly and said, “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken to you first, but since you reject it and condemn yourselves as unworthy of eternal life, … So they shook the dust from their feet in protest against them, and went to Iconium. Acts 13
This fourth Sunday of Easter is sometimes referred to as Good Shepherd Sunday since the gospel today is taken from the 10th chapter of St. John where Jesus speaks of Himself as the good Shepherd who protects his sheep. And who specifically are these sheep of the good Shepherd? His sheep are those who hear his voice and follow him.
To follow Him, of course, means to obey His commandments, just as He perfectly obeyed the commandments of His Father. In John Chapter 15 Jesus makes this explicit connection with his words in Chapter 10 when he says, “When you obey my commandments, you remain in my love, just as I obey my Father’s commandments and remain in his love.” So the Good Shepherd expects obedience to his commandments, and to these good sheep he promises eternal life and the hope that they will never perish.
The notion of the Good Shepherd, however, can be badly distorted by imagining that the Good Shepherd really demands nothing from his sheep. For instance, in today’s permissive society, we are often told that a good shepherd is one who is totally nonjudgmental and not at all worried about our keeping commandments, but only our acts of kindness.
The trouble is that it’s hard to fit that concept into any serious reading of the New Testament. For instance in that first reading we see Paul “boldly” telling some of his fellow Jews that by their hostility and persecution, “you condemn yourselves as unworthy of eternal life.” and then we are told that Paul and his fellow missionaries “shook the dust from their feet in protest against them,
and went to Iconium.
Now that certainly seems to involve a judgment – condemn yourselves as unworthy of eternal life! – and shaking the dust from their feet was also a kind of judgement itself, and Jesus commands it and explains its significance in both Mark and Matthew. In Matthew 10, Jesus says And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town. Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town. In Mark 6, Jesus confirms that interpretation where He says, “and if any place will not receive you and they will not listen to you, when you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.”
So Paul and his companions were simply following the instructions of Jesus to the letter, and yet I wonder how such an action would be interpreted today; what Paul and his companions be seen as bad shepherds, and what about Jesus himself who gives this instruction?
I think the key to all this is to understand what the mission of the Good Shepherd truly is. Jesus did not come into the world to make people feel good about themselves, but to save them. No one was ever more gentle and kind that our Savior, but he never hesitated to speak the truth when what was at stake was the salvation of those he was addressing. In that short gospel today, his primary concern is to make sure none of his sheep are lost, that they persevere on to eternal life and that no one take them out of his hand. The greatest charity is concerned for the salvation of the neighbor, but at times that takes a kind of tough love where the truth is spoken even if the neighbor is likely to reject it.
When Jesus sees the Pharisees trying to undermine his teaching, his first concern is for the little ones whom they may mislead, that is, take them out of his hand which would mean that they would perish. So he does not hesitate to call them liars, murderers, servants of the devil. His purpose is not to condemn, but to make them see what they’re really doing and who they’re really serving.
Even Peter, the first among the apostles, is not spared the truth, when he suggests that Jesus should certainly not undergo his passion. “Get the behind me Satan” is his rebuke, and not even the Pharisees are called Satan. These harsh sayings of Jesus in the Gospels are often skipped over because they don’t fit with the modern notion of the Good Shepherd who should be a kind of softy who never raises his voice against evil, never says a harsh word, is always the milk of human kindness. The trouble is it just doesn’t fit the Jesus of the Gospels, but only the Jesus of people’s imagination.
But then I really wonder whether people who have this sort of mushy notion of the good Shepherd would want the same thing with their good medical doctor. What they really want their doctor to avoid telling the truth because it might hurt their feelings or scare them. If the doctor sees that a serious disease will end up in death if not treated now, what he really be a good doctor if he soft-pedaled the truth of the situation, by telling the person you’re really not so bad off, it’s not really that serious, don’t worry about it, just because he thought the real truth might scare his patient or make him feel bad.
Do good parents do this with their children – refuse to confront them the truth because that might make them feel bad? Never raise their voice even if the child is acting in a totally self-destructive way? We mustn’t hurt Johnny’s feelings or his self-worth as the pop psychologists love to advise. I know Johnny has dangerous drugs in his room but I mustn’t violate his privacy. I think very few parents would act in that way, and those who do would not be considered good parents.
The church to is a Good Shepherd, and more than that she is a good mother. She is not afraid to challenge her children and to correct them when they need correcting. Paul even used a feminine analogy when trying to warn some of his new Christians that they were heading to destruction. This manly apostle said must I give birth to you a second time!
Jesus truly is the good Shepherd, and everything he does originates from charity. But charity can’t be authentic if one ever denies the truth or hides the truth simply to spare someone’s feelings who is headed to perdition. How could that be Love? Certainly the Gospel Truth should always be accompanied by kindness and love, but even when it is, it may well be badly misinterpreted by those who in their hard hearts resist the Gospel of Truth. Paul discovered that rejection in Antioch of Pisidia, and so he rightly shook the dust from his feet. That may also be what’s happening again in our day as Christianity is disappearing from the western world. Perhaps Christians have for too long been looking for Shepherds who only tell them what they want to hear. What we all need is Shepherds who tell us what we need to hear, the truth.