Monday, April 26, 2010

In the Absence of the King

Sunday of the Fourth Week of Easter - John 10:27-30
Good Shepherd Sunday
"My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand. I and the Father are one." 

WOW, this has to be one of the shortest gospel readings ever - especially for a Sunday - yet it gives us an important image that we should be familiar with. The shepherd and his flock are mentioned throughout the pages of scripture. Many of the important figures of the Old Testament were shepherds. 
  • Abel made offerings of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions.
  • Jacob took care of Laban's flocks while he worked to marry Rachel.
  • Joseph was tending the flocks of Jacob when his brothers sold him into slavery
  • Moses took care of sheep in Midian for 40 years. He then used his rod to shepherd God's people out of slavery in Egypt. 
  • King David was a shepherd before being anointed King if Israel. Then his shepherd's staff became a royal scepter.
These are just a few of the important shepherds in the Old Testament. Also, in a beautiful passage from Ezekiel, we are told that God Himself is the shepherd of his people, Israel.
"For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when some of his sheep have been scattered abroad, so will I seek out my sheep; and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. And I will bring them out from the peoples, and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the fountains, and in all the inhabited places of the country. I will feed them with good pasture, and upon the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on fat pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. 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. . . . And they shall know that I, the LORD their God, am with them, and that they, the house of Israel, are my people, says the Lord GOD. And you are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture, and I am your God, says the Lord GOD." ~ Ezekiel 34:11-16, 30-31

The image of God as shepherd is a tender one.
Behold, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms, he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young. ~ Isaiah 40:10-11
David, the king of Israel, who had been a shepherd before his anointing as king, sings to the Lord in the ever familiar Psalm 23.
The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want; he makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies; thou anointest my head with oil, my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD for ever. ~ Psalm 23:1-6
As a shepherd, himself, David identified what he knew about his former livelihood with whom he understood God to be. So he praised the Lord and asked for the salvation of his people by singing,
Blessed be the LORD! for he has heard the voice of my supplications. The LORD is my strength and my shield; in him my heart trusts; so I am helped, and my heart exults, and with my song I give thanks to him. The LORD is the strength of his people, he is the saving refuge of his anointed. O save thy people, and bless thy heritage; be thou their shepherd, and carry them for ever. ~ Psalm 28:6-9
Fast forward to the Jesus of the New Testament, who refers to Himself as the Good Shepherd in the Gospel of John. What will happen when Jesus returns to the Father? He must find someone who will take His place as shepherd. Last week, we heard the gospel in which Jesus commissioned Peter to be the shepherd of His Church. Just as three times, Peter had denied Jesus, so too, three times does He ask Peter, "Do you love me?" Three times, Peter responds, "Lord, You know that I love You." After each time, Jesus tells Peter, "Feed my lambs . . . Feed my sheep . . . Feed my sheep." This is the same man He told,
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. ~ Matthew 16:18-19
To fully understand this passage, we must think like a Jew in Jesus' time. What is Jesus really doing when he:
  • changes his name from Simon to Peter?
  • gives Peter the keys?
  • gives Peter the authority to bind and loose?

First of all, by changing Simon's name to Peter, Jesus was indicating that Peter is being called by God for a divine mission, just as the patriarchs of the Old Testament were given a new name - Abram to Abraham, Jacob to Israel, . . . 
Jesus also came to establish His kingdom in this world. Within Eastern kingdoms, the office of steward was a permanent one. The steward was the literally one “over the house”  and ruled in the absence of the king and the king would entrust with the keys of the kingdom to him. We can associate Jesus’ statements to Peter with the passage in Isaiah 22 that says,
I will thrust you from your office, and you will be cast down from your station. In that day I will call my servant Eli'akim the son of Hilki'ah, and I will clothe him with your robe, and will bind your girdle on him, and will commit your authority to his hand; and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open. ~ Isaiah 22:19-22
Isaiah is replacing Shebna, the royal steward of the king, with Eliakim, who succeeds him as the steward. In Matthew, Jesus is the holy one, the true one who has the key of David and He has given the key of David to Peter. So, Peter is made steward "over the house while the king is away" because he has been given the keys to the kingdom. Mention of the key is found three times in scripture.
  • Isaiah 22:22
  • Matthew 16:19
  • Revelation 3:7
The final mention of the key in Revelation tells us the meaning behind the binding and loosing. John tells us that in the letter to the church of Philadelphia, he was instructed to write:
"The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one shall shut, who shuts and no one opens." ~ Revelation 3:7
The binding and loosing of the previous passage from Matthew 16 run parallel to the terms shut and open. These were Jewish terms that referred to the power to declare things lawful or unlawful, to permit or to prohibit. In other words, the authority of the one "over the house" was the rule of the house as a law rules a people.

Why did Jesus commission Peter to shepherd the Church?  Because we are His flock and
  • Sheep without a shepherd cannot find their way.
  • Sheep without a shepherd will not know where to pasture.
  • Sheep without a shepherd have no defense against the wolves of this world.
Let us respond to Pope Benedict XVI, the vicar of Christ, who is shepherd "over the house" while the king is away. Let us look to the truths of our faith within His Church.

Food for thought: What other truths might we learn from the Sunday Gospel reading, keeping in mind that we are the sheep of His flock?
  • The Father was greater than Jesus before He was glorified - raised from the dead.
  • The Father has a firm hold on His sheep.
  • The Father gives Jesus His sheep.
  • Jesus and the Father are one.
  • Jesus' sheep listen to Him.
  • Jesus' sheep follow Him.
  • Jesus knows His sheep.
  • Jesus has a firm hold on His sheep.
  • Following Jesus leads to our glorification - eternal life. 

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