Fourth Sunday in Easter
Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, was a very harsh critic of her country because of its involvement with violence, oppression and injustice throughout the world. Out of love and loyalty, she was also very critical of the Church that often accommodated and compromised with worldly power which maintained and perpetuated injustice and oppression. Once she wrote, ‘I never expected much of the bishops. In all history, popes and bishops and abbots seem to have been blind and power-loving and greedy. I never expected leadership from them. It is the saints that keep appearing all through history who keep things going. What I do expect is the bread of life and down through the ages there is that continuity.’
In August 2020, the US Catholic Bishops Conference released Open Wide Our Hearts to condemn racism. However, they failed to mention #Black Lives Matter or white privilege, or anti-Black racism which is pivotal to understanding the US and which could apply to Australia. The document only used the word ‘condemned’ not in connection to the treatment of Black people but to treatment of police!! There is no condemnation of the disproportionate deaths at the hands of police. In Australia, we are reminded of the disproportionate deaths in custody from the Royal Commission Report into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody whose 30th anniversary occurs on April 15. Why more deaths now than 30 years ago? More incarceration than 30 years ago? Why no outrage in white society? Why no outrage and action in government and church leaders? Why the silence? When Jesus rose from the dead, it was a call to live life differently. It comes down to dignified all people: black people, transgender people, gay and lesbian people, Muslim people, Chinese people. It comes down to loving people and cherishing them as precious. This does not leave room for lukewarm encounters from the church or muted responses to injustice and inequality. It is the violence of silence.
So, though the Good Shepherd image brings to mind God as the shepherd of Israel who provides, comforts, guide, guardian and protector, the sitz-im-leben – the context - of John’s discourse on the Good Shepherd was meant not primarily to comfort, but to touch consciences. Though shepherding in Israel’s history was a noble occupation, in Jesus’ time, shepherds were considered bandits and thieves and treated contemptuously as social, political, and religious outcasts. For Jesus to refer to himself as a ‘good’ shepherd, given the marginal status of shepherds, would have been oxymoronic. To hear of a good shepherd or good Samaritan was as much a contradiction as good Muslim, good homeless person, or good Protestant or good homosexual. By calling himself shepherd, Jesus was identifying with the ‘least of God’s people’ - the outcasts, and the victims of political, economic, and religious injustice. It was a message of comfort, solidarity and presence to people who were vulnerable, in despair and powerless. God sides with those afflicted by human injustice, and not with the oppressors. Pope Francis, in homily speaking of shepherds, said: ‘By reason of their work, they were men and women forced to live on the edges of society. Their state of life, and the places they had to stay, prevented them from observing all the ritual prescriptions of religious purification; as a result, they were considered unclean. Their skin, their clothing, their smell, their way of speaking, their origin, all betrayed them. Everything about them generated mistrust. They were men and women to be kept at a distance, to be feared. They were considered pagans among the believers, sinners among the just, and foreigners among the citizens.’ Given this description, why would Jesus say he is the good shepherd? For Pope Francis, the image of lost sheep describes many people who have left the church or felt abandoned when they were struggling or have been scandalised by it. They have not been listened to. Yet, we know that the voices of people unjustly treated or oppressed comes to us as the voice of God along with the
The voice of the victims of oppression is the voice of God and which calls us to work for the reversal of policies that create inhumane conditions of poverty, exploitation and violence here and elsewhere. The Church could choose to remain silent in the face of many injustices, or it could speak against them, and side with the victims of injustice. It could choose to collude with worldly power and be part of the machinery of mammon, violence, oppression, and death, or it could become poor and divest itself of power, influence, unjust wealth, and association with political dynasties, giving them up in the service of Christ’s poor. Its choice could mean either salvation for itself, or betrayal of its Good Shepherd. In the parable of the good shepherd, Jesus reminds us that he knows what it means to be isolated, on the fringe, and rejected by society, but he does not get stuck in a stereotypical image of shepherds of his day. Jesus differentiates himself from those who have no commitment to people.
The image of Jesus with his disciples is one that bears wounds in his hands, feet and side. The point to risk love. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that only a suffering God can help. It was only the God that mattered. Bonhoeffer said that our sacrifices bring life to the world and help us to connect with God. We cannot claim to be mature Christians and true followers of Jesus if we see suffering, pain, violence, destruction (our Earth) and do not respond.
Today’s gospel celebrates God’s all-embracing care. The gospel contrasts the true leaders, like Jesus, who stands among us offering God’s ‘shalom’ (peace) as gift and challenge as to what are we doing to make the world look more like God’s world. The other leaders are those who are incapable of recognising or responding to the ‘wounds’ in people because they tend to be ones who drive more spikes and nails into the hands and feet of our sisters and brothers. Jesus speaks in terms of nurturing and protection; of giving one’s life for the other which must include ‘mother’ earth. The call to care and love and show compassion cannot be spiritualised. These are always concrete and needs to take flesh. Its public face is justice. Jesus’ suffering transforms the world and models our own relationships as sacrificial and interdependent. Yet, we need to take into consideration the suffering of the non-human as well as human world if we are to be faithful to the gospel in our time. God surely cares for the baby humans and generations to come, but God also cares for the baby right whales, on the verge of extinction, and the flora and fauna endangered by human activities.
Such love always has been and continues to be controversial. We see it in Jesus’ ministry, the hospitality of the earthy church, and the reconciling love in people such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu or Bishop Juan José Gerardi who was bludgeoned to death in 1998 (April 26) who spoke against the atrocities perpetrated in Guatemala. By exposing the truth of the violent atrocities and presented them in a report damning of the military he was bludgeoned to death two days later. These people are like shepherds who might be even considered unwise – as unwise as the shepherd chasing after a lost sheep or lamb and recklessly leaving the others.
The Good Shepherd and those who follow do not give up on anyone – not a single sheep. There is no talk of collateral damage, of ‘cutting his losses’ or of ‘tough love’ that can be applied to a rebellious child. God’s unconditional love leaps into action at the first sign of repentance. As Pope Francis has said, ‘We tire of asking for God’s forgiveness, but God never tires of offering it.’ God’s name is Mercy. God cannot do otherwise, for it is God’s very nature to love and forgive. The good shepherd’s love embraces the stranger, the lost, the lonely, the outcast, and persons of other faiths. Being one of God’s own inspires us to welcome God’s other sheep. There is no room for parochialism in God’s pasture. Other sheep are also recipients of God’s saving grace. As we listen to God’s voices coming to us through the groans of our sisters and brothers, the non-human world and that of the earth, will we respond by expanding our circle of compassion to include ‘strangers,’ not only human strangers from other cultures and faiths; but strangers from other species, different yet intimately connected with us?
Most of us have some responsibility for others. So this gospel is for all of us: parents, teachers, priests and bishops. It is for anyone who is entrusted with vulnerable people.
Jesus reveals a God without borders. This gospel is a parable of radical inclusion. This contrasts with the way we treat all that is vulnerable among us. Fear, hatred, greed are never far below the surfaced when injustice and inequality exist. , and we easily find ways to take out our anger and fear and racist attitudes on those who are not like us and cannot defend themselves.
We are invited to think about what is really important in human relationships. We must look first into the eyes of those we hate or despise, reject or condemn. We might find that there is nothing to hate or despise or reject or condemn. We might then embrace them as creatures of God, and equal partners in life's endeavors. We can do this when we stand in awe at what people are carrying rather than how they carry it. This was Jesus’ dream – something he challenged his followers to live out as he placed himself amongst those whom contemporary society rejected: the tax collectors and sinners, prostitutes, Samaritans and shepherds. It is a contemporary message. We have a terrible teaching about women in our church that persists to the present. For some God has made a ‘deliberate’ mistake in creating gay people. The gospels calls us to reflect how much we exclude people rather than drawing them in - thus obscuring Jesus’ message. Jesus teaches us that everyone should be included amongst his own [flock]. He teaches us that God has no borders. This is the way to peace.