The Outstretched Hand of the Good Shepherd, Fourth Sunday of Easter (B), May 7, 2006

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Anthony of Padua Church, New Bedford, MA
Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year B
May 7, 2006
Acts 4:8-12; 1John3:1-2; John10:11-18

1) In today’s Gospel, Christ tells us clearly who he is and how important we are to him. “I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.” He contrasts a good shepherd with a mercenary, a hired hand, who, when danger appears in the form of thieves or wolves, immediately flees and allows the sheep to be stolen, harmed or killed. The Good Shepherd defends the sheep at the risk of his own life. Jesus is the fulfillment of the prayer of David his ancestor in the 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd. There is nothing I shall want.” With the Lord as our shepherd, we have it all.

2) Jesus used the image of the shepherd laying down his life for his sheep to communicate how much he loved us. On face value, it is absurd for a human being to give his own life to save an animal’s. Sometimes we can grow to have such affection for our pets that we make all types of sacrifices for them and their care, but most of us would realize the absurdity of giving our life to save, for example, a hamster. Minimally, if we were to die for them, they would be left without an owner and would not be able to make it on their own. But if it is absurd for a human to trade his life for an animal’s, think about what it would mean for God to trade his life for a human being. The distance between a man and an animal is infinitesimal compared to the gap between God and man. Yet that is what God did. He emptied himself and became a man so that he could trade his life to save our own. Then Jesus turned to us and told us to love others as he has loved us, to be willing to give our lives for them, even if we think they’re beneath us.

3) Our love for others is also the criterion of our love for Christ. The Lord showed us that after the resurrection when he met Peter at the shore of the Sea of Galilee and asked him three times, “Simon, Son of John, do you love me?” Three times Peter responded, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” To the first yes, Jesus said “Feed my lambs”; to the second, “Tend my sheep”; and to the third, “Feed my sheep.” His love for the Lord would be shown by how well he fed and tended Christ’s own sheep, the sheep for whom Christ had come from heaven to earth to trade his life to save. Likewise, Christ said to each of us not “love me as I have loved you,” but “love one another as I have loved you.” Our love for the Lord will be shown by the love we have for the members of his flock.

4) This is the proper context for us to speak about the Catholic Charities Appeal, which begins this weekend. This appeal is a very concrete way by which we tend and feed so many for whom the Lord laid down his life. In the first reading today, St. Peter defends himself because of the “good deed done to someone who was sick.” All of us are called to be capable of making the same defense. We’re all called by the Lord to do good deeds for those who are sick. Through the Catholic Charities Appeal, we do just that, providing chaplains for those in hospitals, long-term care for seniors and those in nursing homes, material and spiritual care for those with HIV, AIDS and other illnesses.

5) Today’s second reading helps us to see clearly those for whom we’re caring: “See what love the Father has bestowed upon us letting us be called children of God; yet that is what we are.” We’re caring for children of our Father, which makes them, truly, our brothers and sisters. They are not anonymous strangers, but brothers and sisters in need. We know from St. Paul’s preaching that the bond of brotherhood that comes from the faith is supposed to be even stronger than the bond that comes from blood. If any of our blood brothers or sisters came to us in desperation, how would we respond? The same respond should influence the way we approach Catholic Charities. None of us here, I hope, would ever turn a deaf ear to such a request. I doubt anyone of us would consider our consciences clean and obligations fulfilled if we gave them a dollar, or five dollars. We wouldn’t try to give them what is left, but what is right, what we can, even at the point of the sacrifices that anyone who loves another is willing to make.

6) But looking at them as our brother or sister, and treating them as our brother or sister, is not even enough. Jesus gives us an even stronger image: they’re his brothers and sisters, too, and our care for them, he tells us, is our care for him. As I wrote in the letter I sent to you in your homes last week, Jesus tells us that when he comes to judge us, he will judge us on one thing: the love we showed for him in our brothers and sisters. He said he would separate us into two groups, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put those destined for heaven on his right, and those destined for hell on his left.

a. To those who are saved, he will say, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Those on his right will ask, “Lord, when did we do any of these good deeds for YOU?” He said he will respond, “As often as you did it for the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it for me” (Mt 25:34-40). He takes personally every good action, given not just to those whom we esteem and admire, but to those toward whom we might be tempted to condenscend, the “least” of this world, the “least” of Jesus’ family.

b. To those on his left, he will say the saddest words that will ever be heard, which will pierce his sacred heart to the core: “Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you told me to get a job, I was a stranger and you told me I was an illegal alien and refused to help me, naked and you gawked at me, sick and you said I was somebody else’s problem to care for, in prison and you said I deserved to die” (cf. Mt 25:41-43). These people will go to eternal perdition, not necessarily because they did evil, but because they did nothing. We see the same lesson in the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man in St. Luke’s Gospel (Lk 16). The Rich Man ended up eternally lost not because he did any tangible harm to the poor man at his door, but because he never did anything to help him. In turning his back on the Lazarus, the Rich Man was turning his back on Christ.

7) Like a good teacher who loves us and wants us to pass the final exam of life, the Lord tells us in precise terms what will be on that exam. As St. John of the Cross said, “we will be judged on love.” In caring for those in need, not only are we helping them materially and spiritually, not only are we helping Christ in them, but we are also ultimately helping ourselves.

8 ) There’s one last aspect to the appeal that I would like to bring to your attention. There are, of course, many ways by which we can care for Christ in the mask of his and our brothers and sisters. I know that many of you are already generous to the multitude of requests that each of us receives to make charitable contributions. But there’s something particularly important about the Catholic Charities appeal. Pope Benedict points it out in his recent encyclical on the love of God. He writes, “Love of neighbor, grounded in the love of God, is first and foremost a responsibility for each individual member of the faithful, but it is also a responsibility for the entire ecclesial community at every level: from the local community to the particular Church and to the Church universal in its entirety. As a community, the Church must practice love” (Deus Caritas Est, 20). At every level — and that includes the parish and the diocesan level — the Church must practice love. This is the way the Church shows who she really is. The pope says that the nature of the Church involves three things: the sacraments, the proclamation of the Word of God, and charity, and says “the Church cannot neglect the service of charity any more than she can neglect the Sacraments and the Word” (22).

9) Here at St. Anthony’s, I would like us as a parish to focus on this “practice of love” at the parish and the diocesan level. As I wrote to you in the letter I sent you last week, out of the 97 parishes in the Diocese of Fall River, St. Anthony’s placed 91st in generosity last year. And if we did not receive a one-time contribution of $2,500 from someone who has moved out of the parish boundaries and now belongs to another parish, we would have finished 95th of 97 parishes. A handful of you have come to me since you received the letter and mentioned you were shocked by those numbers and embarrassed, considering the amount of people who come to Mass here each weekend, the great and storied history of this parish, and the vitality of parish life. “What message are we sending to the bishop and to other parishes?,” you queried. When I asked one of you to answer that question yourself, you responded, “that we’re cheap!” St. Anthony’s has never had the reputation of being a rich parish, but from the earliest days, the parishioners earned the title of being among the most generous and dedicated. This Church stands as a witness to it. It was paid for not by rich benefactors, but by our hard-working blue-collar ancestors in the parish who sacrificed so much to build and maintain this beautiful tribute to God. In our parish history, there’s the famous competition from 1902, when our bishop at the time — Bishop Harkins of Providence — challenged our parish, St. Lawrence, and Our Lady of Mt. Carmel to a competition raising money for the poor. St. Anthony’s won, collecting $5,023.22. The New Bedford Evening Standard newspaper reported that St. Anthony’s parishioners were “all filled with pride that they won in a contest with St. Lawrence, the richest parish in the diocese as well as the oldest in the city.” I’d like to see that pride return, and I’m sure so would you. Together we can bring it back by our generosity to those in far greater need than we are.

10) At the end of March, I was invited to Ave Maria University in Naples, Florida, to give some talks to the college students and seminarians. They had just receive the donation of several modern bronze statues. The statues I was shown by the provost of the college were all too modern for his and most of the students tastes. But later, as I was walking around the campus, I saw one statue that I’ll never forget. It was of a hooded man sitting on the outdoor steps leading to the refectory stretching out his hand like a beggar. In the afternoon sunlight, at first, I thought it was a real man and not a statue — an image which stood out in sharp contrast to the surroundings in one of the wealthiest places in our country. So I drew closer to look at the statue more closely. Then I saw the outstretched hand and noticed something peculiar about it. There was a hole in the middle of it — a scar, left by a nail mark. I was stunned. That was a statue of Jesus Christ begging, reminding all of the students to look beyond the appearances and see Christ in the disguise of those asking for alms. This is a lesson that is likewise important for all of us. Christ with his hand stretched out right now.