When Good Shepherd Sunday rolls around again, we dread being compared to sheep: wooly, stupid and directionally challenged.
So maybe we should focus instead on the shepherd: there are many reasons why he has been beloved for centuries. We who have grown overly cynical about leadership, given the disasters in church, state and corporate worlds, can find refreshment in this portrait. This is not the hierarch who sacrifices children to pedophiles in order to preserve the church’s reputation. This is not the president who sends thousands to die in war for some unclear purpose. This is not the CEO who draws a salary astronomically higher than the least paid workers in the company.
In utter simplicity and without drawing attention to himself, this leader sacrifices his own life for his friends. He is confident and calm, nobly laying down his life. Although the thugs may seem to control him at his trial and crucifixion, he in reality is directing the order of events. Why? That seems a mystery, and is in fact the same question the poet Christina Rossetti asked about the quest for the lost sheep: “Is one worth seeking, when Thou hast of Thine/ Ninety and nine?”
Such dedication is beyond human comprehension, but hints of a supreme love.
Imagine that you’re grieving the death of a beloved friend, who died tragically young. Make matters worse: he died violently, suffering terribly. Probably the last thing you need as you mourn is a clueless stranger who must hear the whole story. “Go away so I can grieve!” seems the most natural response. One sentence in Luke describes this situation for the disciples: “They stood still, looking sad” (24:17). Paralyzed by grief, they can’t move ahead.
Now imagine the same scenario with one difference: what if the intruder were Jesus? Cleopas and his companion are stuck; they can’t see the cross as anything but failure. All their hopes for Jesus and his reign have dissolved. But somehow this stranger gets them talking and walking again.
They are so drawn to him that they ask, “Stay with us…” (24:29)
Perhaps that should be our prayer too, asking Jesus to be with us in whatever dark trench we find ourselves. If we too have lost hope, enthusiasm or even interest, it doesn’t seem to bother him. Somehow, he rekindles the dormant spark so it becomes an inner flame. He gladly joins a long walk and conversation, winding it up, typically, with a meal.
Many commentators have pointed out the irony of Jesus appearing in the guise of a stranger. To expand on this idea, we may find him where we least expect. Our usual sources of inspiration may disappoint. He seems to delight in surprising us, then nurturing us, however unlikely the circumstances.
Despite the fact that it has been celebrated for centuries, the quality of mercy remains an abstraction. Today, on the second Sunday of Easter, Jesus gives mercy a human face and touch.
Before we criticize Thomas too much, we should ask what we might do in a similar situation. Would we also be skeptical if our friends told us that someone had returned from death? Wouldn’t we want to see for ourselves? Thomas may simply voice the questions most disciples harbor secretly.
The first disciples, caught in fear and confusion, are hardly the finest spokespersons for the gospel. But then, neither are we. We have the same mixture of doubt and certainty, anxiety and joy that they had.
Jesus responds to us as he did to Thomas—without harsh judgment. He understands our needs for concrete reassurance. After all, God created us with five senses to help us learn. And if Thomas—stubbornly insistent on tangible proof—can believe, maybe there’s hope for us all.
To us as to him, Jesus extends the same merciful invitation: “touch me and see.” Only by coming dangerously close to this wounded Lord will we know transformation of our wounds—and resurrection. Doubt isn’t evil: it’s the entryway to hope.
Where we might have expected glory and trumpets the first Sunday after Easter, instead we get typical, honest, human groping towards truth. A splendid reunion between Jesus and his friends? Not quite. But maybe something better: Jesus’ mercy, meeting them where they (and we) are stumbling, extending his hand in genuine understanding and compassion.
God our Creator,
And just when we think
winter won’t end, a sliver
of light, a bird’s flute solo,
a tentative poke of green.
Thank you for sun on skin,
the pink bud opening to lilac,
rains that gild the branches.
Praise God for dandelion yellow,
pale coral, indigo, speckled petal
and new leaf tinged with red.
For warmth and bikes, ice cream
and longer light. As you transform
the earth, touch us too with
Anyone who lives long enough questions. Why do the wicked prosper? Why do the young die? Why does potential wither while evil thrives? The genius of today’s gospel is that Jesus doesn’t try to answer the questions. He enters into them.
Some passion accounts begin with the exquisite scene of Jesus’ anointing. The bean-counters hate it: how will they justify the expense or fit it on their spreadsheets? But Jesus answers: hold onto kindness and beauty, which help us through the worst. As the author of ATONEMENT writes, such actions are a “last stand against oblivion and despair.”
As does a meal with friends. Jesus’ concern in his final hours isn’t with imminent, brutal suffering but with a final gesture of friendship. He reaches out to them–and to us–with the nurture of bread, the spirit of wine and the praise of song. During his whole ordeal, there is no word of recrimination, though it would be understandable. He responds to insulting betrayal by pouring out love.
To the logical, it makes no sense. But to the believer, the powerless triumph. Those who seem defeated ultimately win. The questions aren’t answered, but they are blessed by the presence of One who lives through them.
Today’s gospel (John 11:1-45) prompts us to ask where we ourselves are bound and death-like. Have we capitulated to the culture’s definition of us as consumers? Have we bought into the put-downs tossed off by the careless that do unintended harm? Do we resort to old categories (gender, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, marital status, socio-economic level), caging unique human beings? Jesus’ call comes to us all: “Lazarus come forth!” Shed those paralyzed trappings; enter into new and abundant life.
It is marvelous to consider Martha’s role in this miracle. She starts with an understandable complaint: “If you’d come sooner, my brother wouldn’t have died.” Yet she dares to hope for more, just as Mary once told Jesus at Cana, “they have no more wine.” Martha is far more creative than the bystanders, who never dream that this “Johnny-Come-Lately” could defy death and wrench their friend from the tomb.
Approaching his passion, it’s almost as if Jesus needs one slight affirmation. He must wonder whether those who’d been with him so long had the slightest glimmer of understanding. Peter had once professed that Jesus was the Christ, but in the next verse, Jesus is warning him because of his stupidity, “get thee behind me, Satan!” Martha, on the other hand, gives Jesus what he needs: her belief that he is “the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” Encouraged by her trust, Jesus asserts his truest identity: “the resurrection and the life.”
Scripture scholar Thomas Brodie writes of the man born blind: His first words, ”ego eimi” mean literally, “I am.” But there’s more to this than a simple self-identification. They also place him in line with God’s self-definition, “I am who am,” and Jesus’ string of identifiers elsewhere in John: I am the bread of life (6:35) and light of the world. This spunky, uneducated man represents us all, made in God’s image. (The Gospel According to John New York: Oxford University Press, 1993, 55.)
Furthermore, the formerly blind man models how to trust. He’s so grateful to Jesus he believes him completely, and bows in reverence to him. He may not have read anything, but he stands in sharp contrast to the Pharisees who desperately cling to a tired tradition: “we are disciples of Moses.” Their blindness keeps them from seeing how awesomely God works in the present.
We shouldn’t pick on them when we all have our blind spots. Sometimes, metaphorically, we choose to hang out in the dark basement, rather than the gorgeous, light-filled ballroom to which God invites us. If we wallow in despair or anxiety, we overlook our amazing identity: created like God.
When Jesus anoints the man’s eyes with clay (John 9:6), it symbolizes the man’s human dignity and heals his blindness. Jesus himself will be anointed by a woman (John 12:3). So too, those baptized or confirmed at the Easter Vigil will be anointed with oil, like Israel’s priests, prophets and rulers. Story and symbol speak of our essential dignity.