"Life is not so much beginnings and endings as it is middles, middles that don't measure up -- and our happiness depends on how we come to terms with the pale reflections of our dreams. (Paul D. Zimmerman, "Middles and Muddles," review of film "Sunday Bloody Sunday," Newsweek, September 27, 1971, 106)

Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Easter (7 May 2017)

Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM

JGospel

“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.

So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly”. (John 10:1-10 – NRSV)

Introductory notes

General

The ten verses of chapter 10 of John’s Gospel proclaimed today, are only part of an extended reflection on the image of Jesus as the shepherd – see 10:1-18.

“But what of the messianic question? Jesus transcends all suggested messianic expectations—the hidden Messiah (7:26–27), the miracle-working Messiah (7:31), the Messiah who gives living water (7:37–41a), and the Davidic Messiah (7:41b–42). He repeatedly affirms his relationship with God, his Father, and the mystery of his origins and destiny. The report of the celebration closes with Jesus finally accepting a traditional Jewish messianic expectation: he is the Good Shepherd (10:11, 14). The roots of this messianic figure lie solidly within Jewish tradition, but Jesus transcends and explodes the possibilities of the image. His shepherding flows from his knowledge and love of the Father, reciprocated by the knowledge and love the Father has for him. Accepting the charge the Father has given him, Jesus will lay down his life for his sheep, but he will take it again.” (Francis J Moloney, SDB, The Gospel of John, The Liturgical Press, 1998, 306-307.)

Specific

sheepfold. Jesus uses a metaphor here that is well known to the people. They would all be familiar with the sheepfold. Raymond Brown writes: “There were several types. At times, the sheepfold was a square marked off on a hillside by stone walls; here it seems to be a yard in front of a house, surrounded by a stone wall which was probably topped with briars”. (Raymond E Brown, The Gospel according to John (I–XII): Introduction, translation, and notes (Vol. 29), Yale University Press, 2008, 385.). The references to knowing the sheep by name, following the shepherd and recognizing his voice, would all be familiar to the listeners.

The metaphor is also well known because it is used frequently in the Scriptures:

• In Genesis 49:24, God is referred to as a shepherd – see also Psalms 23, 95:7 and 100:3; Isaiah 40:11; Ezekiel 34:11–24; Micah 7:14; Zechariah 10:3 and 11:7.

• In Ezekiel 34:2, 9 and 13f, the leaders are compared to shepherds who have failed to tend their sheep. See also Numbers 27:17; 1 Kings 22:17; 2 Chronicles 18:16; Zechariah 10:2.

Reflection

The word ‘conversation’ is much in vogue. As a result, it has fallen victim to what C S Lewis noted many years ago, that nothing will deprive a word of its power more effectively than popularity. Our English word ‘conversation’ is best understood by going to its Latin roots. It comes from two Latin verbs: conversari, meaning to ‘dwell’, ‘keep company with’ or ‘abide’, and convertere, meaning to ‘change’, ‘convert’, ‘alter’, ‘refresh’ or ‘turn’. Genuine conversation is much more than mere talk or discussion or debate. It is a transforming encounter with the other.

Two essential processes happen in genuine conversation. The first of these – implicit in the Latin verb, conversari – is a being present to the other. We ‘dwell’ or ‘abide’ with the other. Conversation is therefore a profound level of communication. The Pontifical Council for Social Communications observes: “Communication is more than the expression of ideas and the indication of emotion. At its most profound level it is the giving of self in love” (Pastoral Instruction, Communio et Progressio (1971), #11).

The second of these processes – implicit in the Latin verb, convertere – is a being present to myself. I face myself and submit to the truth of my life. I open myself to discovery and change in and through this encounter: “Talking happens a lot. .... Conversation is rarer, by far. .... No one takes leave of a real conversation the same as when one entered into it. Our conversations create us. Conversation and risk and conversion belong together. Conversation is dangerous, therefore, to anyone unwilling to embrace or at least to accept transformation”. (Michael A Cowan and Bernard J lee SM, Conversation, Risk and Conversion: The Inner and Public Life of Small Christian Communities, Orbis Books, 1997, 1.)

Jesus is presenting himself as a conversation partner. He offers a relationship where we can “hear his voice”, where he “calls each of us by name”, he “leads us out” of our tiny worlds, he “goes ahead of us” and we “follow” because we “know his voice”. Words like abiding, dwelling, refreshing and transforming, begin to describe our relationship with Jesus. We begin to experience discipleship as conversation. (Pope Paul VI, in his first encyclical – Ecclesiam suam (August 1964) offers an extended reflection on colloquium salutis (“the conversation of salvation”).)

Those who are transformed become those who transform. The presence of Jesus, alive for us an active partner in conversation, becomes the presence of Jesus alive for our world. Our contemporaries may not find our articulation of moral values compelling but they might just find our presence – being transformed by Jesus – at least puzzling if not attractive. This will be especially so if we engage them in genuine conversation.