“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.

This morning’s Gospel reading is 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.”

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus takes the concept of power and turns it on its head. We see this today throughout all the readings, and especially in John’s Gospel and Jesus’ analogy of the Good Shepherd. It foreshadows the Resurrection, of course, but Jesus also teaches how our pretenses of power really amount to nothing.

The good shepherd lays down his life for his flock, Jesus teaches, which is itself a surprising statement. Perhaps I have become so used to this teaching that I didn’t consider this until recently. We rightly put a high value on human life, which makes this a puzzling and challenging statement. Why would a shepherd sacrifice his own life for sheep? Sheep are valuable, of course, but the wise choice of action — at least in the transactional sense — seems to be that of the hired man in this parable. If a wolf appears, get out and come back later to round up what’s left. Sheep are replaceable, after all, certainly more than shepherds.

Jesus turns this transactional calculation on its head for salvation. The sheep are God’s flock of people, worth the sacrifice of the Good Shepherd to save. The contrast between the two shows just how much value the Lord puts in each human soul. Sheep were valuable to owners; they kept families on at least a subsistence level of living, and their disappearance could mean starvation and ruin. Still, they are lowly creatures, and even those desperate for an income would be hard pressed to let himself be killed over a few of them.

Jesus tells the disciples that the Son of God will die to ensure that none of his flock are lost to the wolf. The King of Kings will die to save even the most lowly of people. Not only does that demonstrate the unimaginable depth of God’s love, but it also makes us equal in a way that had never been expressed before. The rankings of power, nationality, ethnicity all disappear in that statement. When Jesus dies for the sake of the poor and downtrodden, He lifts them up into equality among all in salvation. Later, Jesus will demonstrate this more practically when He washes the disciples’ feet in His final Passover, at the start of the Passion He foreshadows here.

That isn’t all He foreshadows here, either. Jesus says:

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.

Jesus lives as a Jew in the time of Roman occupation, when the only power that remains with the Israelites is what their Roman occupiers allow them. That power is held by the Sanhedrin, and the Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes that want Jesus dead. The power disparity between this “Good Shepherd” and the loci of earthly power could not be more stark. And yet, Jesus promises that He holds the ultimate earthly power — of life over death.

Does this sound familiar? In John 19:10-11, Pilate tries to impress Jesus with his own power to get Jesus to answer his questions, but Jesus tells Pilate that his concept of power is an illusion, and that he is but a pawn:

Pilate therefore said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore he who delivered me to you has the greater sin.”

Jesus tries to warn Pilate of the futility of earthly power and the illusions it holds, but Pilate refuses to learn. His obstinance undoes what Pilate thought he would accomplish by crucifying Jesus. Instead of sending Jesus to an ignominious and disgraceful death and ending the threat His teachings represented to those in power, Pilate unwittingly unlocks salvation as part of God’s plan — thanks to the power “given [Pilate] from above,” as it were. And Pilate is only remembered throughout all of history for this one act, from which Pilate attempted to distance himself almost immediately.

Who held the power? Who ended up the disgrace?

Peter similarly scolds the elders of Israel in the first reading from Acts 4:8-12. The Sanhedrin and the entire temple power structure rejected Jesus as a threat to their own standing. They had Him crucified as a demonstration of their power, hoping to secure their positions. Peter cites Psalm 118, the prophetic song of praise which states, “The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” Within a generation, the leaders of Israel would see the temple destroyed and the Israelites driven from Jerusalem, but the church founded by Christ would not only live but thrive throughout the world.

Blessed are the meek, Jesus said, for they will inherit the Earth. “Meek” does not mean powerless, though it sometimes seems as it does. It refers to those who have power who nevertheless use it humbly in service to others. It’s the Good Shepherd who has the power of life over death, and yet chooses to die to save every last member of His flock, knowing He will rise again for salvation. It’s also the members of His flock who live for His Word, and who understand the real nature of power, and the false glamour of worldly expressions of exaltation and might.

All things serve God, even in their refusal and obstinacy, such as Pilate. We must choose on a daily basis whether we serve God or the power of earthly illusion. We can hearken to the voice of the Good Shepherd, or get lost among the wolves. The choice is ours, but the world will not lay its life down for us; only Jesus does that for our salvation. Isn’t the choice clear?

Note: Image from the mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna, Italy (425-50 AD).