Good Shepherd Sunday – Beginning with Justice, Ending with Love

The Good Shepherd, c. 300–350, at the Catacombs of Domitilla, Rome (Wikipedia)

Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Good Shepherd Sunday
1 John 3:1-2
April 25, 2021

The risen Jesus determines how we view the past, live in the present, and what we expect in the future. Today’s reading from the 1st Letter of John most directly looks at the future but will shed light on the others as well.

The writings attributed to St John were the product of an entire community over a considerable period. This community formed around the “beloved disciple” an eyewitness to the events of Jesus’ life. The first writing was the original edition of the Gospel. This was composed by John “the Evangelist” and directed to the early community which knew the Beloved Disciple and had a grasp of Judaism. Over time the community grew and become more diverse. The leaders could no longer count on familiarity either with the person and witness of the beloved disciple nor a common and basically Jewish understanding of Jesus and his mission. The letters are a product of this diversity and written by a person we are calling John “the Presbyter,” or elder.

The question of an afterlife was a very live issue among the Jews of Jesus’s time. Many, perhaps most, Jews did not believe in an afterlife in any way we would desire. The exception were the Pharisees. They held that to vindicate the faithfulness of God we must expect an afterlife.

Their reasoning may seem foreign to us, but I find it profound and convincing.

God promised that all peoples would see the good rewarded and the bad punished. This runs through the entire Old Testament. One example is the 25th psalm:

In you (God) I trust; do not let me be disgraced;
do not let my enemies gloat over me.
No one is disgraced who waits for you,
but only those who lightly break faith.

(Ps 25:2–3)

We know however that sometimes good people are not rewarded, and bad people are. The group that became the Pharisees thought that for God to be faithful and true, the entire world must see justice carried out. If this could not be done in this life, then there must be in another one. This was however a very “this worldly” experience. Our bodies would rise (e.g., Ezekiel 37:12) and God would set up a perfect physical earthly world which he himself would lead.

It is thus easy to see why the writers of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) emphasized that in his own words Jesus came to bring the Kingdom. That is perfect harmony between God and humanity, all peoples and humanity and nature. His intervention in our world would have been significant but we are obviously far from perfect harmony. St. Matthew expresses this best in the 25th chapter of his Gospel when he separates the sheep from the goats. This very clearly reflects the final judgement which Pharisaical Jews expected. Because of the incarnation and resurrection, the Kingdom is already present but because of our sinfulness not yet fully manifested.

John has a somewhat different perspective and like the Synoptics it begins with who judges and when.

Whoever believes in him
will not be condemned,
but whoever does not believe
has already been condemned,
because he has not believed
in the name of the only Son of God.
And this is the verdict,
that the light came into the world,
but people preferred darkness to light,
because their works were evil.

(Jn 3:18–19)

John emphasizes that the Judgement is now but also the reward:

Amen, amen, I say to you,
whoever hears my word and
believes in the one who sent me
has eternal life and will not come
to condemnation but has passed
from death to life.

(Jn 5:24)

This is in the present tense. We have eternal life and have passed from death to life.

Compare this with Luke, usually the Synoptic Gospel, closest to John:

But rather, love your enemies and
do good to them, and
lend expecting nothing back;
then your reward will be great and
you will be children of the Most High,
for he himself is kind
to the ungrateful and the wicked.

(Lk 6:35)

Note the future tense.

John clearly believes in the afterlife where true perfection will occur:

Do not be amazed at this,
because the hour is coming
in which all who are in the tombs
will hear his voice and will come out,
those who have done good deeds
to the resurrection of life,
but those who have done wicked deeds
to the resurrection of condemnation.

(Jn 5:28–29)

Like the synoptic authors John, the Evangelist believes that eternal life/the kingdom is already here, but its fullness is yet to come but he wishes to emphasize the already part. This mystery is so great that we need to be formed by both. The key to keeping this in perspective is to remember its origins in Judaism.

John the Presbyter is writing today to people who perhaps have lost that key. To get the full meaning of this we must read beyond the two verses chosen for the lectionary today.

John tells us that we are here and now God’s children but to know the risen Lord is to know that even more awaits us: “we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” (1 Jn 3:2) “Seeing” is more than passive observation but participation in his life. This will be developed into the idea of sanctifying grace. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, ¶2000)

As we cannot understand God, we cannot fully understand our future with him. Yet it will be based on how we have lived our lives—how we are judged.

The rest of this chapter makes this clear and would be good to read in its entirety. But let us just look at two verses:

Whoever sins belongs to the devil,
because the devil has sinned
from the beginning

(1 Jn 3:8)

Our actions will reveal our loyalties and only those who are loyal to Jesus can be as he is. Also,

If someone who has worldly means
sees a brother in need and refuses him compassion,
how can the love of God remain in him?
Children, let us love not in word or speech
but indeed and truth.

(1 Jn 3:17–18)

Love cannot evade practical charity. This is a problem which the Presbyter must address many times in his letter. Jews were bodily practical people and the more religious they became, the more practical their charity. Often Greeks and others felt that the more religious one was the less concerned about material things one should be. We see the Presbyter’s’ forceful rejection of this throughout his letters.

This all around us. This week Derek Chauvin was found guilty of killing George Floyd. It has been noted that this was not complete justice, but accountability, a step towards justice. The depth of racism is so deep that it will take generations to address and then be replaced by another “other”. There will be no ultimate answer until what, continuing the thoughts of the Pharisees, Catholics call the “General or Final Judgement” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, ¶1038) Then in front of all the fullness of God’s justice will be revealed. We will see not only the innocent vindicated but the extent of sin in the world and why it took God himself to suffer and die to free us from it.

This is what the Presbyter is telling us today: That which begins with justice for God has the best chance of ending with love from God.