As the Church began to flourish and spread after that first Easter, the main tool it had to proclaim its Good News to the rest of the world was the language of the Hebrew Scriptures. More often than not, the version they used was the Greek one. That detail may sound like something that ought to be reserved to the footnotes of scholarly tomes. In fact, it sometimes makes a considerable difference in our understanding of the New Testament. The little speeches that make up about a third of the Acts of the Apostles provide abundant examples of Christian use of the Hebrew Scriptures in Greek.
This Sunday's First Reading gives us the end of Peter's Pentecost speech, along with its immediate aftermath. When Peter refers to his audience (Jews gathered in from a worldwide Diaspora) as “the whole house of Israel,” he is using a term that implies that his listeners constitute potentially the “restored Israel” of “the age to come.” For, earlier in the same speech, Peter had cited Joel 3, understanding that passage as relating to “the last days,” and interpreting those last days as what was beginning to happen then and there on that particular Pentecost.
That same passage from Joel also said,
And it shall be that everyone shall be saved
who calls on the name of the Lord. (Acts 2:21)
In Joel's context, that statement referred to those who cast themselves on the mercy of Yahweh. In the language of Acts, “the Lord” is understood as a title for Jesus, and so “those who call upon the name of the Lord” becomes virtually a name for all Christians. (see Acts 9:14, 21; 22:16) It is with that meaning that Peter invites his audience to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. In so doing, they too will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit prophesied in that same Joel passage.
Then Peter's speech reaches out to the rest of the human family: “For the promise is made to you and to your children and to all those far off, whomever the Lord our God will call.” The promise” is the one made to Abraham: “In your descendants all the nations of the earth shall find blessing.” (Gen 22:18)
Like Paul in Galatians 3:6-9, Luke understands that this promise was fulfilled especially in the gift of the Holy Spirit to Gentiles as well as Jews. And the inclusion of Gentiles comes through as well in the phrase “those far off,” which in the Greek version of Isaiah 57:19 appears to refer to the Gentiles. Thus a single stunning passage in the Hebrew Scriptures (even more strongly in the Greek version) supplies an explanation of both their own revitalized life and the Church's mandate for mission.
Our second reading, from 1 Peter, interprets the fourth Servant Song of Isaiah. (Is 52:13-53:12) Here, the author takes a passage that Jews understood (and still understand) as portraying Israel as a witness to the nations, and he applies it to Jesus (fulfilling Israel's role).
The Gospel passage has for its background a number of Old Testament passages about God and God's Anointed One imaged as shepherds, especially Ezekiel 34. In this vision, the prophet excoriates the “shepherds” of Israel who “pastured themselves” and failed to heal the sick or seek the lost. (Ezek 34:4) He quotes God saying, “I myself will pasture my sheep.” Further, God will do this through an agent: “I will appoint one shepherd over them to pasture them, my servant David.” (Ezek 34:23)
The previous chapter of John had shown Jesus doing the work of the Good Shepherd, healing the man born lame and then “seeking him out” later—all this despite the abuse of those “bad shepherds,” the religious officials, who are portrayed as blind in their arrogance. In this Sunday's Gospel, Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd who leads his sheep to fullness of life.
The more seriously we take the Jewish sources of our Christian language, the better we understand that language and the more we recognize that we are the “far off” ones who have been extended the hospitality of the house of Israel by its shepherd.