Scripture and the Liturgy

Good Shepherd Sunday!

The readings for this Sunday’s Masses are truly “scandalous” in more ways than one. Our English word “scandal” comes ultimately from the Greek skandalon, “a stumbling block.”  A “scandal” is something that causes people to “stumble,” i.e. that offends or injures them in some way.  As we will see, the exclusive claims made for and by Jesus in the readings for this Sunday are scandalous to the “inclusive” and “diverse” culture we live in today, which does not recognize the possibility of a religious truth binding on all humanity.

1.  The first reading is Acts 4:8-12:

Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said:
“Leaders of the people and elders:
If we are being examined today
about a good deed done to a cripple,
namely, by what means he was saved,
then all of you and all the people of Israel should know
that it was in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean
whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead;
in his name this man stands before you healed.
He is the stone rejected by you, the builders,
which has become the cornerstone.
There is no salvation through anyone else,
nor is there any other name under heaven
given to the human race by which we are to be saved.”

Peter and John have been taken before the Sanhedrin (the Jewish combination Congress and Supreme Court) and are actually being tried for healing a man in the name of Jesus!  This reminds us of Christians in contemporary society being prosecuted for doing what is right, e.g. fighting for the lives of the unborn, or speaking the truth about marriage.

Peter says it is “by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth” that the crippled man was healed.  The “Name” motif runs strongly through this reading.  The concept and reality of the “Name” of God is very rich in the Old Testament.  God’s “Name” has virtually the same attributes of God himself.  The revelation of God’s “Name” to Moses is essentially the revelation of God’s own self to Moses (Exodus 3).  Later in Israel’s history, God will make his “Name” dwell in the Temple (Deut 12:11 et passim), which is virtually the same as saying God’s own presence will inhabit the Temple.  The “Name” of God continues to be important in the New Testament as well (see John 17).  In this passage from Acts we are seeing that Jesus Christ of Nazareth has become God’s “Name,” i.e. the expression of his power and presence.  We can almost say that the “Name” of God in the Old Testament is all but the same as his “Word,” and that both “Name” and “Word” are ultimately the Second Person of the Trinity.

So, the fact that this man is healed “in the Name of Jesus” implies that “Jesus” is “the Name of the LORD” (cf. Pss 116:4,13,17; 118:10-12,26) and therefore Jesus is divine: a scandal for St. Peter’s hearers. He knows that most of them will not accept this message, so he continues with a quote from Psalm 118: “The stone the builders rejected has become the head of the corner” (v. 22).  In other words: “Jesus, the rock that you consider a ‘skandalon,’—an offense, an inconvenient cause of stumbling—has in fact become the foundation stone of the Temple of God.” The whole building metaphor, after all, has the Temple specifically in view.  The building of which Jesus is the “head of the corner”—that is, the first stone laid, crucial for the stability of the whole structure—is the Temple of God, built not of stones but of persons (Eph 2:19-22; 1 Pet 2:5).

St. Peter concludes his message with this line: “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”

This is the line that offends our modern pluralism.  Isn’t arrogant for Peter to claim that Jesus is the sole way to “salvation”?

I don’t think it is, once we understand what “salvation” is.

“Salvation” as defined by Jesus and the Church is not an eternity in a garden of sensual delights.  Rather, “salvation” is to share the very life of God.  It is to participate in the divine nature, to become a “child” or “son” of God, and enjoy him forever.

The founders of other major world religions do not even claim to offer a way to this “salvation.”

The Buddha taught that the problem of human existence was the illusion of our self-hood, and he offered a way by which we could lose this illusion and thus essentially cease to exist as personal beings.

This is not what Christians mean by “salvation.”

Joseph Smith taught that each of us could become a deity ourselves, complete with our own planet/solar system to govern and populate. Each of us becomes a “god” with a small “g”.

This is not what Christians mean by salvation.

Mohammed taught a way of obedience to a monopersonal god, “Allah,” who would reward those who were his obedient servants in this life by granting them an afterlife of sensual pleasure and comfort. He did not offer divine sonship, nor a participation in the divine nature (2 Pet 1:4), which were and are blasphemous in Islamic theology.

This, too, is not what Christians mean by “salvation.”

We could continue this analysis, mutatis mutandis, with the other founders of world religions and philosophical systems.  They do not claim to offer what Jesus Christ claims to offer: divine sonship (childhood), which is a participation in the life of God himself, forever.

Many Christians know little or nothing about other religions, and “pan-Christianize” the rest of the world’s religious practice, assuming that Mohammed, Buddha, Zoroaster, etc. basically taught the same thing as Jesus, function the same as Jesus for their followers, and promised the same thing as Jesus to their followers.  In a paradoxical way, this is a kind of cultural imperialism that imposes one’s own way of thinking on the rest of the world.  True ecumenism means seeking to understand how others think and experience their religions.  When we do this, we realize that, in addition to certain similarities, there are also radical and fundamental differences between the aims and objectives of these different belief systems.  And once we see these differences, we realize that Jesus’ claims aren’t in the least arrogant, but simply a statement of incontrovertible fact.  Jesus is the only founder of a world religion who even claims to offer a way to be a child of the God who created the universe.  Jesus is the only way to the Father, because he’s the only one who even teaches us that God the Creator is our Father. 

If there are three vendors on a street in a marketplace, one selling bananas, one selling oranges, and one selling apples, it is not arrogant for the banana merchant to proclaim, “I am the only way to bananas!”

Apologies for the humble analogy, but likewise it is not arrogant for St. Peter to proclaim on behalf of Christ, “There is no other name by which we must be saved!”—provided we understand what it is to be “saved” according to Jesus and the Apostles.

2.  The responsorial psalm is Psalm 118:

R. (22) The stone rejected by the builders has become the cornerstone.
Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good,
for his mercy endures forever.
It is better to take refuge in the LORD
than to trust in man.
It is better to take refuge in the LORD
than to trust in princes.
R. The stone rejected by the builders has become the cornerstone.
I will give thanks to you, for you have answered me
and have been my savior.
The stone which the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone.
By the LORD has this been done;
it is wonderful in our eyes.
R. The stone rejected by the builders has become the cornerstone.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD;
we bless you from the house of the LORD.
I will give thanks to you, for you have answered me
and have been my savior.
Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
for his kindness endures forever.
R. The stone rejected by the builders has become the cornerstone.

We have discussed this Psalm in previous posts: its significance as a todah psalm, its use in the Passover liturgy, its frequency in the Lectionary during this time of the Church year.  In today’s mass, the Psalm complements the first reading, in which Peter quotes it concerning the “rejected stone”:

He is the stone rejected by you, the builders,
which has become the cornerstone.

Let’s keep in mind that Psalm 118 was essentially the last thing Our Lord uttered at the Last Supper, since the “hymn” sung by Jesus and the Apostles (Mark 14:26) before leaving for the Mount of Olives would have been the Passover Hallel consisting of Psalms 113-118. Now, weeks after Easter, Peter is proclaiming that the prophetic words of the Hallel have found a fulfillment in Christ!

Jesus was rejected by the religious leaders of his own day, even though he was the source of salvation.  In a mysterious way, many saints have shared in Jesus’s rejection, being spurned by those with power.  So St. John of the Cross was imprisoned by his own order, St. Padre Pio was held under a cloud of suspicion, St. Josemaria Escriva was prevented from having any access to or communication with the Pope.  St. Alphonsus Liguori, already advanced in years and in poor health, was kicked out of the order he had founded by his fellow priests.  This kind of mysterious suffering at the hands of those who themselves belong to the Church are not reserved only for the extraordinary figures of history, but can also happen to lay Catholics seeking to live out their lives in faithfulness.  St. Josemaria called it “persecution from the good,” and it is a deep form of sharing in the sorrows of Christ, a very painful contradiction that tries the faith of the believer who undergoes it.  One has to accept it in total abandonment to the mysterious will of God, and exercise faith that there is resurrection on the other side of this kind of painful personal “death,” as there was for Christ himself.

3.  The second reading is taken from the First Epistle of John 3:1-2:

See what love the Father has bestowed on us
that we may be called the children of God.
Yet so we are!
The reason the world does not know us
is that it did not know him.
Beloved, we are God’s children now;
what we shall be has not yet been revealed.
We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him,
for we shall see him as he is.

While at first it appears that this Reading does not share themes with the others, in fact it does, in a profound way: the Apostle John emphasizes the element of Jesus’ Gospel that the world finds so scandalous: the offer of divine sonship.  This is what the Buddha would have considered silly and Mohammed blasphemous:

See what love the Father has bestowed on us
that we may be called the children of God!

Our eternal destiny is mysterious, something beyond what can be fully comprehended in this life: “it does not yet appear what we shall be.”  It is not an eternal Disneyland nor garden of sensual delights. (In fact, the desire for self-satisfaction that would make us want a Disneyland or sensual garden is one of those things from which Christ came to free us.)  It will be, however, eternal communion with God: “we shall see him as he is.” 

Gazing (looking intently upon someone) is a profound form of communion in the Scriptures, as can be seen in the Song of Songs, a book which deeply influenced the Apostle John and echoes of which can be found in strategic places in his Gospel.  The idea of “seeing” God is very important in strategic places in the Gospel of John: just look at John 1:18: “No one has ever seen God, but God the only begotten, who is in the bosom of the Father, has made him known,” or John 14:9: “He who has seen me has seen the Father.”

This Second Reading just re-emphasizes that the whole point of our Christian faith is something different than the other world religions and philosophies are trying to attain.  Do you want to become a child of the only creator God who truly exists?  Do you want to enter into communion with him and share his nature forever?  Then check out the Catholic Church founded by Jesus.

4. The Gospel reading, however, does not show the influence of the Song of Songs, but of two other key OT texts: Psalm 23 and Ezekiel 34.  We are speaking of the famous “Good Shepherd Discourse” (John 10:11-18):

Jesus said:
“I am the good shepherd.
A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
A hired man, who is not a shepherd
and whose sheep are not his own,
sees a wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away,
and the wolf catches and scatters them.
This is because he works for pay and has no concern for the sheep.
I am the good shepherd,
and I know mine and mine know me,
just as the Father knows me and I know the Father;
and I will lay down my life for the sheep.
I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.
These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice,
and there will be one flock, one shepherd.
This is why the Father loves me,
because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.
No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own.
I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again.
This command I have received from my Father.”

In Psalm 23, David proclaimed: “The LORD (YHWH) is my Shepherd!”  So in claiming to be the “Good Shepherd,” Jesus is implicitly claiming to be the LORD.

Other passages come into play here, as well.  In Ezekiel 34 the LORD promises that in the latter days, “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD.  I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the crippled, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will watch over; I will feed them in justice” (vv. 15-16).  Jesus is clearly developing this passage and its larger context, and applying it to himself.

But Ezekiel 34 also promises that in the latter days, “I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd” (v. 23).  Hmmm, that’s curious.  Lord, I thought you just said that you yourself would be the shepherd of your sheep (Ezek 34:15)?  How is David going to fit into this picture?  Will there be two shepherds, the LORD and David?  But that can’t be, because “I will set up over them one shepherd …” (Ezek 34:23).

In claiming to be the Good Shepherd, Jesus is assuming the mantle of both the LORD and David, the two of whom, Ezekiel prophesied, would constitute the one shepherd of Israel in the latter days.

But here is an element of Jesus’ teaching that is not clearly foreseen in Psalm 23 or Ezek 34: namely, that the LORD-Shepherd would submit to death: “I lay down my life, that I may take it again.  No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (vv. 17-18).  This is a final “scandalous” element of Jesus Gospel: a savior-God who loves us to the point of death.  This, too, is something not found in Buddha, Mohammed, and the other great religions and philosophies.  It’s scandalous, too, because if our Shepherd, Lord, and God laid down his life in love, that sets an example for us: an example we often balk at following.  Let’s remember that Jesus taught us: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me” (Luke 9:23).  The path of salvation is the path of the cross—a life of self-denial even to the point of death.  Understandably, this message has never been terribly popular.  Even in historical periods where the institutional Church has enjoyed popular support, the numbers of people who truly internalized this Gospel message and lived it out have been relatively small. It takes great faith to believe that self-sacrifice is, in fact, the one and only way to experience resurrection and eternal life. 

May the grace that we receive from communing with Christ in this Eucharist empower us to lay down our lives in love this coming week, take up our cross, and follow Jesus—whatever that may mean in our different life circumstances.

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