The Good Shepherd Gospel reading on the Fourth Sunday of Easter seems out of place because it takes us back in time before the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. On the preceding Sundays of Easter, the focus has been on the Resurrection appearances — beautiful moments of joy, trepidation, surprise and hope. The Good Shepherd passage, however, has something important to teach us about the formation of the New Testament.
In recalling that all of the Gospels were written after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, we have to conclude that everything contained within them was written in the light of the Resurrection, that is, with the end in mind: the victory of Jesus over sin and death. The Gospels, in other words, record the life and teaching, the death and resurrection of Jesus, as told to us through the faith of the Apostles who knew him and loved him. The Apostles are telling the story of Jesus in faith and for faith — to inspire us to believe in Jesus.
Not everything that Jesus said and did was understood at the time, certainly not before the Resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. John himself tells us as much in his Gospel. For example, after the cleansing of the temple, John wrote, giving us just one example of how a word spoken by Jesus could only be understood in the light of later events: “Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews said, ‘This temple has been under construction for forty-six years,* and you will raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking about the temple of his body. Therefore, when he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they came to believe the scripture and the word Jesus had spoken” (Jn 2: 19-22).
Another such example is when Jesus spoke about himself as the Good Shepherd: “Although Jesus used this figure of speech,* they did not realize what he was trying to tell them” (Jn 10:6). After Jesus’ death and resurrection, however, Peter and the others came to understand these words, especially where Jesus explicitly says of himself: “I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (Jn 10:11). We know this because Peter refers to Jesus as the shepherd in his first letter: “He himself bore our sins in his body upon the cross, so that, free from sin, we might live for righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you had gone astray like sheep, but you have now returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls” (2:24-25).
Passages like Jesus’ description of the Good Shepherd illustrate how the evangelists often show how the Apostles were mystified by things that Jesus said and did. Certainly, the Apostles did not hide that fact in their preaching. The Gospel writers told the story of Jesus to the best of their ability, inspired by the Holy Spirit. The process of transmitting Divine Revelation in the form of the Gospels happened rapidly, over the course of about 50 years. But a key to their writing was how they came to understand Jesus’ words in light of his death and Resurrection.
How did the Gospel writers compose their Gospels? The Church teaches about three stages of the formation regarding the canonical (meaning accepted as inspired by God and read in the liturgy) Gospels in the Catechism (CCC, No. 126). The first stage simply relates to the life and teaching of Jesus. Depending on the witness of the Apostles — who were with Jesus, called by Jesus to form his intimate circle of companions and to be the foundation of his Church — who passed on what Jesus said and did. The second stage came when, after Jesus’ Ascension, once they were enlightened by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the Apostles preached boldly, not in weakness. They knew and loved Jesus, and they wanted everyone to know who he was. They wanted everyone to have access to the mystery of God’s life through faith in Jesus and through baptism. In the third stage, the Gospel writers selected both oral and written materials to prepare their texts. They organized what they heard and read in order to write most effectively to the diverse audiences of their time.
According to a long-standing tradition in the Church, some of the Gospel writers were Apostles and others were not, but they preserved and wrote down the apostolic preaching: what the Apostles learned from Jesus himself, and what they themselves saw. St. Justin Martyr, who died around 165 AD, identifies the Gospels more than once as the memoirs of the Apostles. The Gospels continue to teach us about the life and teaching of Jesus. They are God’s gift to His Church, and their apostolic origin is undeniable.
Sister Anna Marie McGuan, RSM, is director of Christian formation in the Diocese of Knoxville.