“Though situated during Jesus’ ministry,” Osvaldo Vena writes in his workingpreacher.org commentary, “the gospel of John addresses the needs of specific communities in the post resurrection era. Scholars believe that the gospel was written around 90 CE,” Vena continues, “a time when the Johannine community was facing harassment from the leaders of the Synagogue, the Pharisees who had abandoned their people during the siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE and had gone to the village of Jamnia where they started the process of reconstructing Judaism. They are,” he concludes, “likened to bad shepherds.”
The fourth Sunday of Easter is always, in the Revised Common Lectionary and its predecessors, “Good Shepherd Sunday.” The gospel reading for this Sunday is always a selection from the “Good Shepherd Discourse” in John 10. While some translations say that this is a “parable,” that’s not a helpful translation. Instead, Jesus is giving us a “figure of speech” or a wise word picture to speak more deeply about his mission of abundant life.
In his article in the Catholic Biblical Quarterly, Christopher Skinner (2018) reviews the similarities and differences between a parable and a figure of speech. A parable tends to be a more public story intended to provoke responses from outsiders. A figure of speech tends to be directed toward insiders with hidden information and veiled meanings. Both speech forms make comparisons, but the figure of speech requires hearers to look and listen below the surface for deeper meanings.
In verses 1-10 (the reading which appears in Year A of the lectionary), Jesus uses the metaphor of the “sheep gate” mixed with the metaphor of the shepherd to describe his mission to the cosmos. That first section of the discourse ends with one of the most important verses in John’s gospel – “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Skinner (2018) divides this section further into “Thief or Shepherd?” (vv. 1-6) and “Jesus, the Door for the Sheep” (vv. 7-10) [page 101].
The third section of John 10 takes us to a different point on the Jewish liturgical calendar – the Feast of Hannukah. Even though it is separated by time and space from the preceding verses, it continues the “Good Shepherd” theme and commentary. Jesus raises the stakes further by identifying himself unequivocally with the Father – “The Father and I are one” (John 10:30).
In response to this, the Jerusalem authorities and their followers pick up stones to execute Jesus. This is the penalty for blasphemy, and the attackers make this clear. Jesus engages them in a complex scriptural interpretation and debate. They apparently drop the stones to scratch their heads in confusion. As they are considering their response, Jesus slips away into the Hannukah crowds.
The last few verses of chapter 10 provide a brief summary and bridge to chapter 11, the climax of the Book of Signs – the raising of Lazarus. The immediate context for our current text concludes with John 10:39. The chief concern throughout is Jesus’ identity – as a wonder worker and as the Son of God. Embracing that identity gets the formerly blind man tossed out of the synagogue. Claiming that identity nearly gets Jesus stoned to death. So, we need to keep that focus in mind if our preaching is to be faithful to the overall text.
As we can see clearly from John 10:21, the Good Shepherd discourse flows out of the healing of the blind man in chapter nine. Just how this discourse is related to the previous healing and controversy is less clear. In fact, the formerly blind man has become a member of the “flock” of the Good Shepherd. He has been led out of his blindness and into the light. He has been called by the voice of the Shepherd when hearing was his primary mode of access to the world.
Other “shepherds” come and toss him out of the sheepfold. The man has come to know Jesus as the Good Shepherd and has listened to his voice. Jesus has put himself at risk for the man just as the Good Shepherd does for the sheep. The healing of the blind man serves as an advance illustration and application of the declarations made in the Good Shepherd Discourse. Again, it’s important to keep all this in mind to remain within the orbit of the text.
The immediate context begins in John 9:35. The formerly blind man has given his testimony a third time to the Judean authorities. As a result, they drive him out (of the synagogue, we can assume). Jesus learns of the man’s punishment and finds him. In that exchange, Jesus reveals that he is the Son of Man. The formerly blind man believes and worships him.
In response to the man’s faithful worship, Jesus declares, “I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind” (John 9:39 NRSV). This is a quote from Isaiah and is directed toward “some of the Pharisees” who were within earshot. They are shocked by Jesus’ accusation of (spiritual) blindness. Jesus responds with a first-century version of “If the shoe fits…”
He follows this heated exchange with the “Good Shepherd Discourse” in John 10. It’s easy to extract that discourse from this context, but that will result in lots of nice, sweet, generic messages that have little to do with the actual text. The contrast Jesus draws between the Good Shepherd and others in the Discourse is a commentary on the interaction with the Jerusalem authorities. It’s important to keep this in mind as we read and interpret the text for this Sunday.
That being said, it will be useful to examine the shepherd allusions in the Hebrew Bible – especially in Psalm 23, Ezekiel 34, and Zechariah 11. There are other significant references as well, but these are the places where we should begin. We will carry out some of that investigation below.
The text itself can be divided into three sections. In verses 11-13, Jesus contrasts the Good Shepherd with the hired hand. In verses 14-16, Jesus describes the relationship between the Good Shepherd and the flock. In verses 17-18, Jesus describes the mission of the Good Shepherd – to lay down his life and take it up again. In these verses there is a brief allusion to the descending and ascending Son of Man first introduced in John 1:51.
Christopher Skinner (2018) notes that the central idea in this part of the Discourse is that the Good Shepherd willingly lays down his life for the sake of the sheep. He argues that the text narrates “a dispute between Jesus and the Pharisees over who is fit to lead God’s flock…” (page 107). He suggests that the primary sense of “to lay down one’s life” in this passage “is directly related to the death of the shepherd” although, he suggests it makes no literal sense to think this way. After all, a dead shepherd isn’t much protection for the flock (page 107).
When the figure of speech exceeds the bounds of normal shepherding practice, Skinner (2018) suggests, we are then in the territory of John’s Christology. We know this also because we have several of the “I am” statements which are central the John’s theology. “The laying down of the shepherd’s life in John 10,” he argues, “is primarily about the imminent reality of Jesus’ death rather than the mere risking of his life” (page 113). This is the feature which sets Jesus the Good Shepherd apart from any “normal” shepherd.
It also then sets apart Christian leaders from other leaders, and Christian communities from other communities. “When the Johannine community affirmed that Jesus was the shepherd, they were not only making a Christological affirmation, that is, who they thought Jesus was, but they were also affirming what kind of leadership was expected in their midst,” Osvaldo Vena observes. “Jesus was not only a living, spiritual presence who was worshipped as God in the liturgical assembly of the community, but he was also the model for church leadership.”
Verses 19-21 are not included in any reading in the lectionary. Yet, they are central to the debate about Jesus’ identity as the Son of Man. As a preacher, I would consider including them in the reading of this Sunday’s gospel. The addition of these verses reminds us of the focus of the text and presents us with the question facing the Gospel’s original audience. If Jesus is not who he says he is, then surely, he must be demon-possessed and should be destroyed. If he is not possessed, then they must take seriously his claim.
Skinner (2018) notes that these verses are not about faith and lack of faith. Instead, he suggests, we have two responses based on lack of faith. One group rejects his words and is not at all convinced. The other group is moved by his works, but that’s never adequate in John’s gospel. “The entire group is as blind – at least from the evaluative view of the narrator – as Jesus insists they are,” Skinner (2018) concludes (page 111).
That challenge has not dissipated over the centuries. C. S. Lewis takes up a variety of this challenge in his famous (or infamous, depending on the commentator) “Trilemma.” Lewis contends that Jesus must be either a fraud, a madman, or the Messiah. Whether Lewis is correct or not, the challenge Jesus presents is clear and compelling. Pascal presents another variety of this argument in his well-known “Wager.” What has one to lose, he argues, by embracing Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God? If he is, then we have engaged the Source of Abundant Life. If he is not, we have lost little.
Well, I’m not sure either of them really got the dichotomy in the text. But the challenge remains…
References and Resources
Skinner (2018), Christopher. “The Good Shepherd Lays Down His Life. Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 80, 2018.