The gospel text for this Sunday is placed between two notices that Jesus is causing debate and division among “the Jews.” In John 10:19-21, Jesus’ Judean listeners are torn (the word for “division” is the Greek word “schisma”) by his claim that he has the power to lay down his life and to take it up again (John 10:18). This power over death and life is and should be reserved for God.
Jesus makes an audacious and potentially blasphemous claim, and it stirs up controversy once again. The Johannine author makes a point of reminding the reader that this is not the first such division and confrontation in the story. Malina and Rohrbaugh remind us that such divisions have taken place at John 7:12, 25-27, 40-41, and 9:16 (page 183). This has been a debate building toward a boiling over.
On the one side of the debate were those who declared that Jesus was demon-possessed and therefore mentally unstable. Malina and Rohrbaugh describe this sort of charge as “Deviance Labeling.” They write that in ancient Mediterranean society, people were not known as unique individuals. Rather, people were known by the categories into which they might be placed by others – place of origin, residence, family, gender, age, and stereotypical features assumed by the larger culture.
Identity was not something an individual created or claimed. Instead, “One’s identity was always the stereotyped identity of the group,” Malina and Rohrbaugh argue. “This meant that the social information considered important,” they continue, “was encoded in labels such groups acquired” (page 149). These stereotypes could be positive or negative. The stereotypical accusation of demon possession was a negative assessment of the character of an individual.
“Negative labeling,” Malina and Rohrbaugh note, “what anthropologists call ‘deviance accusations,’ could, if made to stick, seriously undermine a person’s place and role in the community” (page 150). When the Judeans accused Jesus of being possessed by a demon, they sought to undercut his authority and destroy his reputation.
“Such labels not only marked one as deviant (outside accepted norms or states”, Malina and Rohrbaugh observe, “but once acquired could be nearly impossible to shake” (page 150). They note that if the charge could be fixed to Jesus in the opinion of the community, Jesus’ honor would be destroyed, and he would be ostracized from that community (page 183).
This isn’t the first time in the Johannine account that Jesus’ opponents seek to label him as a demon-possessed deviant (see, for example, John 8:49ff.). When Jesus is confronted by this accusation, he points to the work he is doing. He notes that it is “good” (noble, honorable) work. He appeals to God’s word for support and legitimacy. And he turns the accusation back on his accusers. “In this way,” Malina and Rohrbaugh suggest, “Jesus rejects the deviance label his opponents are trying to pin on him, and the crowd (or the reader of the story) must judge if the label has been made to stick (page 150).
“In antiquity all persons who acted contrary to the expectations of their inherited social status or role,” Malina and Rohrbaugh note, “were suspect and had to be evaluated” (pages 185-186). Jesus had claimed to lay down his life and pick it up again on his own power and authority. But only God (or a demon) could do such things in the ancient Mediterranean view. Therefore, either Jesus was acting on God’s behalf, or he was in the thrall of demonic forces.
This is the debate in John 10:19-21. If Jesus is demon-possessed and mentally unstable, how can he do the things that he does? How, in particular, can such a person open the eyes of the man who was born blind? In the ancient Mediterranean worldview, such a combination of a demon and a healing verges on the impossible.
This is the debate that leads into our text for Sunday. Perhaps this was a debate that raged in the community over a period of months rather than moments. After all, the Johannine author takes us from the Feast of Booths in the fall to the Feast of Dedication in the winter.
The debate had, perhaps, come to a head by this time. As Jesus walked in Solomon’s Porch to escape the cold wind and rain from the west, he was surrounded by opponents. The word which the NRSV translates as “gathered around” in John 10:24 has a much more threatening tone and import. It is the Greek verb “kuklo,” which means to encircle or surround in order to restrict or even to capture. This is not a gathering of students or even a curious crowd. This scene has the makings of a lynching.
“The question posed in this section,” Malina and Rohrbaugh write, “is whether Jesus is or is not the Messiah” (page 184). As readers of the Johannine account, we know the answer to that question. In fact, the very purpose of the gospel, as described in John 20:30-31, is to show that the Messiah, the Son of God, is Jesus. It is putting our faith in Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God that gives us “life in his name.”
Jesus has not answered his opponents “plainly” on this matter. That is, he has not declared himself publicly, for all to see and hear. He has not staked his honor on the answer. This uncertainty and ambiguity are taking a toll on the Jews who are surrounding him. The NRSV translates their complaint as, “How long will you keep us in suspense?” But that may not be the most helpful or accurate translation of that complaint.
The Greek construction is difficult to render in a way that makes sense. As Malina and Rohrbaugh note, the literal translation would be something like, “How long are you taking our life?” The word for “life” here is “psyche,” which is a different word than Jesus will use in talking about “eternal life” in verse 28. Ancient evidence for the NRSV translation, Malina and Rohrbaugh observe, “is scarce” (page 184).
They do note that in modern Greek the idiom means something like “to provoke us.” That would certainly make more sense of the conversation and its threatening nature. How much longer are you going to stir up trouble, Jesus, with your “will he, won’t he” strategy and tactics? Let’s get this out in the open so we can be done with it one way or another!
“It should be noted,” Malina and Rohrbaugh remind us, “that questions posed in public are always an honor challenge” (page 185). This is a very public honor challenge in the midst of a crowd primed and ready for violence. We see that preparation for violence in the follow-up to our appointed reading, where the encircling crowd pick up stones in order to kill Jesus for giving what they consider to be the “wrong” answer.
Those who have surrounded Jesus for this showdown on Solomon’s Porch demand to know why he keeps the Judean populace stirred up with his veiled claims of oneness with God. “Jesus’ riposte to this challenge,” Malina and Rohrbaugh state, “is to avoid any direct answer to the question” (page 186). Instead, he urges them to look at what he’s doing if they want evidence. The reason they can’t accept the evidence of their own senses and experience, Jesus argues, is because they are not “of Jesus’ sheep” (John 10:26). This is the argument that takes us back to the metaphor of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, contained in John 10:11-18. That metaphor shows an intimate connection between Jesus and the Father, and between Jesus and the flock.
The punch line that describes this intimacy is in John 10:30 – “I and the Father,” Jesus says, “we are one” (my translation). In response, Jesus’ opponents pick up stones again. In this description, Malina and Rohrbaugh argue, Jesus “is speaking of the close, interpersonal relationship of loyalty and trust that John consistently claims exists between himself, God, and his followers” (page 187). His opponents regard such an overt statement of identity (even though it is functional here and not ontological) as a blasphemous claim that no human being can make without suffering the consequences.
Malina and Rohrbaugh note, however, that “the overquick resort to violence in a challenge-response situation was not only dangerous, it was frequently an unintended public admission of failure in the game of wits” (page 191). When one is losing an argument, a violent and bullying response may silence the opponent. But it may also indicate that one’s opponent was right and couldn’t be allowed to continue to speak.
Jesus has “insulted” the crowd, Malina and Rohrbaugh suggest, perhaps by noting that they are outsiders (not of Jesus’ sheep), rather than insiders. As a result, they seek to silence him. “Their resort to violence,” Malina and Rohrbaugh continue, “is a tacit admission that their tactics have failed. Their resort to violence,” the authors conclude, “indicates that Jesus has won the exchange” (page 191). These stories of violence, culminating in the Crucifixion, would make it clear to ancient listeners that Jesus was the honorable victor in the exchange.
The stage is now set for the penultimate sign in the Johannine account – Jesus’ unwillingness to lose Lazarus and his preview of his power over Death itself. Whether any of today’s post makes it into the body of one’s sermon for Sunday, I think it is important to have the proper framing for our text and not to wedge it into the box of the first half of John 10 simply because it’s “Good Shepherd Sunday.”
References and Resources
Johnson, Elisabeth. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-easter-3/commentary-on-john-1022-30-5.
Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.
Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Fortress Press, 1998.
O’Day, Gail R.; Hylen, Susan E. John (Westminster Bible Companion). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
Wallace, Daniel. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. Zondervan, 1996.
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