Text Study for John 10:11-18 (Pt. 3); 4 Easter B 2021

It’s Good to be a Sheep

In late June of 2020, Washington governor Jay Inslee issued a mandatory face-covering order for both indoor and outdoor contact and groups. Robert Snaza, sheriff of Lewis County (Washington) spoke to a crowd the day the order was announced. “In case you guys didn’t hear, Gov. Inslee in his infinite wisdom has decided after over a hundred and some odd days that we should all wear face masks, inside and out,” Snaza said. “Here’s what I say – don’t be a sheep.” Snaza’s comments were met with applause.

Snaza’s “don’t be a sheep” comment went viral. It has become a meme on social media. It has been so widely quoted that people no longer source the reference. “Don’t be a sheep” means to think for oneself and to act autonomously (literally as “a law unto oneself”). Yet, this phrase has become widely quoted and is hardly, therefore, an example of courageous and creative self-assertion. Thus, don’t be a sheep – stop saying “Don’t be a sheep.”

Photo by Jonathan Borba on Pexels.com

It is clear that this the pejorative advice, “Don’t be a sheep,” has been tossed about with unthinking and hypocritical abandon. The implication is that I am blindly following someone else without exercising independent judgment and will. This is regarded as foolish, stupid, naïve, ignorant, and/or misguided. For some current critics, “being a sheep” is about as bad as it gets.

Of course, that is not the case in the Christian scriptures. It is certainly not the case here in John 10. It is also not the case in the Hebrew scriptures. In 2 Samuel 24:17, David pleads that his subjects are innocent of his sin and should not suffer punishment – “but these sheep, what have they done?

Sheep do best when we follow a good shepherd. When we follow thieves and robbers, we will be used and abused as commodities and abandoned when the going gets rough. When we have no shepherd at all, we will be scattered and lost. “Don’t be a sheep” is regarded in the both Hebrew and Christian scriptures as the path to sure destruction.

In 1 Kings 22:17, the court prophet, Micaiah ben Imlah is called to pronounce a positive prediction on the king’s success in battle against the Assyrians. At first, the prophet complies, but the king is not satisfied that this is the truth. So, the prophet gives the straight stuff to the king – “I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains, like sheep that have no shepherd; and the Lord said, ‘These have no master; let each one go home in peace.’” Sheep without a shepherd in this context would be people without a king — bad news both for sheep and shepherd.

If this reminds you of Jesus’ verdict on the crowds – that he had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd – then you are paying attention. Sheep without a shepherd will be lost at least and destroyed at worst. We read about that fate in Jeremiah 50:6. “My people have been lost sheep;” the Lord says in describing the Babylonian Exile, “their shepherds have led them astray, turning them away on the mountains; from mountain to hill they have gone, they have forgotten their fold.”

In Zechariah as well, it’s good to be a sheep. When the faithless shepherds fail in their duties of care, the Lord will have compassion on them (Zechariah 10:7) and care for his flock (Zechariah 10:3). As noted above, Zechariah 11 delivers an oracle of doom against the faithless shepherds.

What are the characteristics of “effective sheep” in Jesus’ figure of speech? The sheep hear the Good Shepherd’s voice. This has the sense that they recognize that familiar voice. The Good Shepherd calls the sheep by name and leads them out. So, they listen and follow. On the other hand, effective sheep run from a stranger who speaks with an unfamiliar voice.

As we noted last week, Jesus is the center of and interpretive lens through which we experience and understand Scripture. Another way to understand that framework comes to us in this week’s text. As we seek to live as Easter people and discern the Good Shepherd’s voice, we can ask ourselves, “Does this sound like Jesus?” That’s the place to begin our interpretation of both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Some texts will sound more like Jesus, and others will sound less like him. The texts that sound more like Jesus should have greater authority in our theology, our prayer, and our conduct.

We come once again to the deep and tender intimacy that Jesus extends to his disciples. This is certainly good news for us sheep as we follow him in life. That theme is, I suspect, one of the reasons why Good Shepherd Sunday rests as the pivot point of the fifty days of Easter. We are no longer glowing quite so brightly with resurrection radiance. We are back to the same old same old. We need regular reminders of our intimate connection with our Good Shepherd, the one who knows and calls us each by name.

Sheep do best when they follow a Good Shepherd. And sheep do best in flocks. Jesus talks about sheep who are in “other folds.” Commentators have wrestled for centuries with the meaning of those words.

“In language similar to that used in the parables, John directs his hearers to focus their worship on Jesus Christ, their only true guide,” Gennifer Benjamin Brooks writes in her workingpreacher.org commentary. “But he makes clear that the Body of Christ is incomplete; there are many who have not yet come to the knowledge of Christ.” Brooks continues, “and therefore have not taken their place in the beloved community under the sovereignty of Christ.”

On the one hand, we can ask ourselves, as Brooks suggests, who are the other sheep who do not belong to this fold? Another way to ask this is, “Who is not represented at the table in our community of faith, judicatory, denomination, etc.?” The risk in limiting ourselves to this question, especially for white, privileged, Christians, is that we are always tempted to center ourselves, our experiences, our interests, and our perspectives.

“The ‘other sheep’ of John 10:16 leave the door open to the readers/hearers of the Gospel and also warn against any kind of exclusive claim on the door-shepherd Jesus,” Meda Stamper writes in her workingpreacher.org commentary. “Deciding who is in and who is out is really, this suggests, not the business of the sheep and is a mystery to them. We sheep-folk are told only to cleave to Jesus,” she urges, “to love, and to testify, as Jesus makes explicit in later chapters of John and in upcoming lectionary texts.”

The colonialist sort of position (that assumes we are the ones who have exclusive access to the Shepherd) will, in fact, make us unfaithful shepherds. After all, the unfaithful shepherds treat the sheep as commodities to be exploited rather than individuals deserving of care. There may be other sheep who are not of this fold. It may be, however, that our fold is poorer because they are not with us. It may be that they are not lacking what we have but rather that we are impoverished by our cultural uniformity and social unanimity. Monocultures are not good at producing new life.

On the other hand, we may well be the ones who belong to “another fold.” It is always dangerous for Christians to believe that we have The Truth by ourselves. Knowing Jesus the Good Shepherd is best accomplished as a whole community of faith. In light of our text, we should always feel motivated to seek out, understand, and connect with others who follow the Good Shepherd along their respective paths.

The Good Shepherd discourse is rooted deeply in the shepherd pronouncements in Ezekiel 34. It’s no accident that the final part of the discourse (which we don’t read this year) moves us to the Festival of Hannukah. Ezekiel 34 serves as the primary synagogue reading for this festival. In the Jewish historical tradition, the good shepherds are certainly the Maccabean heroes who defeat the pagans and rededicate the Temple for faithful worship. In this victory, they restore the people of God to wholeness and unity.

Ezekiel 34 reminds readers that people must be returned from other lands for the Exile to be reversed. The return from Exile is a sort of second Exodus. We Christians note that the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Christ accomplishes the fulfillment of this Exodus as people from all tribes and nations will return to the Lord of all life. There will be one flock because of the redemptive work of the Shepherd who, in the language of Revelation, is “the Lamb who was slain.”

Finally, the Good Shepherd discourse has much to say about the nature of Christian leadership as shepherding. Karoline Lewis observes that the conversation between Jesus and Peter in John 21 is rooted in the discourse in chapter 10. “The relationship between the shepherd and the sheep in the discourse,” she writes, “provides the thematic basis for discipleship in chapter 21 by supplying the vocabulary and framework of love, knowledge, and care of the sheep embodied in the dialogue by Jesus as shepherd, and Peter as sheep and then shepherd” (pages 321-322).

In addition, Lewis notes, the interaction between the Discourse and chapter 21 allows for “sheep” to become “shepherds.” She writes, “Following Jesus the shepherd is not only descriptive of the relationship between the shepherd and the sheep but means becoming shepherds, caring for the sheep, and even laying down one’s life for the sheep” (page 322). This is what it means, I think, to be “Easter sheep.”

Being a sheep, for a Christian, therefore, is hardly an exercise in mindless meme-ing. “This is not simply following his example, or thinking, ‘What would Jesus do?’” Lewis writes, “but actual participation in and the embodiment of the work that Jesus did and sends us out to do” (page 324). So, here on Good Shepherd Sunday the counsel and command of Jesus is clearly, “Be a sheep.”

References and Resources

Brooks, Gennifer Benjamin. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-easter-2/commentary-on-john-1011-18-5.

Lewis, Karoline M. “’Shepherd My Sheep’: Preaching for the Sake of Greater Works than These.” Word and World, 2008 (digitalcommons.luthersem.edu).

Neyrey, J. (2001). The “Noble Shepherd” in John 10: Cultural and Rhetorical Background. Journal of Biblical Literature, 120(2), 267-291. doi:10.2307/3268295.

O’Day, Gail R. “Jesus as Friend in the Gospel of John.” Interpretation, April 2004, pp. 144-157.

Skinner (2018), Christopher. “The Good Shepherd Lays Down His Life. Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 80, 2018.

Stamper, Meda. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-easter-2/commentary-on-john-1011-18-3.

Vena, Osvaldo. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-easter-2/commentary-on-john-1011-18-4.

Regarding Robert Snaza speech, see https://www.king5.com/article/news/health/coronavirus/wa-sheriff-on-mask-order-dont-be-a-sheep/281-094bddc6-b99f-412f-b871-6a2157292775.

Text Study for John 10:11-18 (Pt. 2); 4 Easter B 2021

It’s Hard being a Good Shepherd

I can’t think about biblical shepherds without hearing in my head the great aria from Handel’s Messiah. It is based on the words of Isaiah 40:11 – “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” Scholars suggest that this verse is one of the chief inspirations for and anchors of the Good Shepherd discourse in John 10. If the Lord is “my shepherd” in Psalm 23, the Lord is certainly “our shepherd” in Isaiah 40. In both cases, the shepherd is an image of gentle and constant care.

The image of “shepherd” is used in the Hebrew scriptures to describe a variety of leadership roles among the Israelites. In 2 Samuel 7:7, it is connected to the tribal leaders of Israel, who never received instructions from God to build a fixed temple.

Photo by Trinity Kubassek on Pexels.com

The image of “shepherd” is used in the Hebrew scriptures to describe the role of king over Israel. In 2 Samuel 5:2, the tribes of Israel ask David to become king instead of Saul: “For some time, while Saul was king over us, it was you who led out Israel and brought it in. The Lord said to you: It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over Israel.

This is especially the case in the “royal” psalm, Psalm 78. The Psalmist writes in verses 70 to 72 that the Lord “chose his servant David, and took him from the sheepfolds; from tending the nursing ewes he brought him to be the shepherd of his people Jacob, of Israel, his inheritance. With upright heart he tended them, and guided them with skillful hand.”

The Psalmist draws a straight line from David’s early career as a shepherd to the role of the king as shepherd of the people. The psalmist, however, has not created this metaphor out of whole cloth. Understanding a ruler as the shepherd of a people is a common image throughout the ancient Near East. Whether David was a shepherd who was then seen as king or a king who was retrospectively seen as a shepherd is an interesting but not critical question.

In Isaiah 44:28, the prophet speaks for the Lord in calling Cyrus of Persia “my shepherd” who will carry out God’s purposes. This is the same Cyrus who in Isaiah 45 is called a “messiah.” In Isaiah 44 part of Cyrus’ mission as the Lord’s shepherd is to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, laid waste by the Babylonians at the beginning of the Exile.

Future shepherds of Israel are modeled after David, the shepherd. In Jeremiah 3:15, the Lord promises, “I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding.” We know that David is described as a man after God’s own heart. The connection Jeremiah makes is quite clear.

Israel’s shepherds can be “good” like David (as described in several texts, anyway) or selfish and corrupt. The prophet in Third Isaiah describes such rulers in very unflattering terms. “The dogs have a mighty appetite; they never have enough,” the prophet writes. “The shepherds also have no understanding; they have all turned to their own way, to their own gain, one and all.” This seems to be close to the kinds of “hirelings” Jesus describes in John 10. “‘Come,’ they say, ‘let us get wine; let us fill ourselves with strong drink. And tomorrow will be like today,” they conclude, “’great beyond measure.’” (Isaiah 56:11-12, NRSV).

A “good” shepherd is described in some detail in Proverbs 27: 23-27. That shepherd knows the condition of their flocks and pays attention to them in order to sustain the investment of time and labor. That work will be rewarded, the Wise One writes, as the lambs provide the shepherd’s clothing and the sale of goats will produce enough cash to buy a field.  Good shepherd stewardship will make sure that the household is well-provisioned.

If Psalm 23 celebrates the “good” shepherd who is the Lord, then Jeremiah 23 portrays the opposite kind of shepherd. In verses 1 through 4 we get words of condemnation upon such shepherds. They “destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture,” the Lord says. They have scattered the flock, driven them away, and not attended to them. To the same degree that they have ignored the needs of the flock, so the Lord will pay close attention to retribution for such poor performance.

Once the unfaithful shepherds have been dispatched, Jeremiah says, the Lord will gather the remnant of the flock from the Dispersion (due to the Exile). The Lord will return them to their “fold,” Israel. There they will “be fruitful and multiply.” So, the Good Shepherd is also the Creator and the New Creator. The Good Shepherd shall raise up shepherds who will do their jobs. Because of those faithful shepherds, “they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord.”

The prophet who is hardest on the faithless shepherds is Zechariah. The rulers and leaders of the people have relied on diviners and fortune tellers for wisdom and insight. “Therefore, the people wander like sheep,” Zechariah says, “they suffer for lack of a shepherd.” The Lord will punish the faithless shepherds and save the wandering people.

Zechariah 11:4-17 is the longest prophetic condemnation of the faithless shepherds. First, the Lord describes the crimes of these selfish shepherds who are themselves “doomed to slaughter” (verse 4). They have bought and killed the people without consequence. They have become rich by exploiting them. They have had no compassion on the sheep.

As a prophetic sign of the doom to come, Zechariah takes on the role of “the shepherd of the flock doomed to slaughter.” He carries two shepherds staffs and tends to the people. He uses his staffs to remove faithless leaders, but the sheep liked the old system and protest. In response, the Lord calls Zechariah to abandon his role and leave the sheep to the faithless shepherds.

Most telling in this passage is the connection between the faithless shepherds and blindness. “Oh, my worthless shepherd, who deserts the flock!” the Lord thunders against them. “May the sword strike his arm and his right eye! Let his arm be completely withered,” the Lord concludes, “his right eye utterly blinded!” (verse 17). The connections to John 10 are obvious.

The final shepherd oracle in Zechariah is often quoted in connection to Jesus. “Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, against the man who is my associate,’” the Lord laments, “Strike the shepherd, that the sheep may be scattered; I will turn my hand against the little ones.”

The Good Shepherd maintains one flock, gathered, safe and well-fed. We get an image of that shepherd in Micah 5:3-5. When the dispersed people of God are once again brought home, then the Davidic king “shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.” It is no coincidence that Matthew connects this prophecy to the infancy narrative of Jesus as he quotes from Micah 5:1 – “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.

Jerome Neyrey suggests that we would be better served as translating this as the “Noble Shepherd” discourse. While this may seem hairsplitting, it’s worth a moment. The opposite of “good” in Greek is “evil.” The opposite of “noble” in Greek is “shameful.” The bad shepherd (hireling) is not evil as such but fails to uphold the shepherd’s duty of care. That failure is dishonorable and worthy of disapproval. The Good Shepherd is faithful always and in all ways to that duty of care. In the language and understanding of the ancient world, Jesus dies a “noble” death for the sake of the flock (which we know from John 3:16 is actually the cosmos).

Gail O’Day explores the image of the Good Shepherd as incarnating the classical ideal of a good friend. While this theme will come up in far stronger terms in next week’s reading, it is embedded in the Good Shepherd discourse as well. “Greater love has no one than this,” John writes in chapter 15, “than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Jesus notes here in chapter 10 that the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. “This mini-parable could be taken as an illustration of the classical distinction between the true and the false friend,” O’Day writes, “the false friend will not be around in a time of crisis, but the true friend will be” (page 150).

O’Day suggests that in the Good Shepherd discourse, Jesus moves from “maxim” to “promise” in verse 15 when he says, “I lay down my life for the sheep.” He continues that promise in his description of the voluntary nature of his dying and rising. “The first-person language clarifies that Jesus is not speaking generally about the gift of one’s life for others,” O’Day suggests, “but making a specific promise about his own life” (page 150). This promise is not, she concludes, a generalized or theoretical teaching about friendship. Instead, this is “about the conduct of his own life” (page 151).

She notes that the Good Shepherd discourse is enacted in the account of the arrest in the garden, where Jesus steps forward to meet his accusers and his death. “In the life and death of Jesus,” O’Day concludes, “the friendship convention of loving another enough to give one’s life moves from philosophical or moral possibility to incarnated actuality” (page 151).

Jesus is the Noble Shepherd who lives and dies as the Good Friend. “Jesus is the ultimate friend,” O’Day observes in summary. “Friendship in John is the enactment of the love of God that is incarnate in Jesus and that Jesus boldly makes available to the world” (page 157).

References and Resources

Brooks, Gennifer Benjamin. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-easter-2/commentary-on-john-1011-18-5.

Neyrey, J. (2001). The “Noble Shepherd” in John 10: Cultural and Rhetorical Background. Journal of Biblical Literature, 120(2), 267-291. doi:10.2307/3268295.

O’Day, Gail R. “Jesus as Friend in the Gospel of John.” Interpretation, April 2004, pp. 144-157.

Skinner (2018), Christopher. “The Good Shepherd Lays Down His Life. Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 80, 2018.

Stamper, Meda. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-easter-2/commentary-on-john-1011-18-3.

Vena, Osvaldo. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-easter-2/commentary-on-john-1011-18-4.

Text Study for John 10:11-18 (Pt. 1); 4 Easter B 2021

Gospel – John 10:11-18

“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.

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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

Brooks, Gennifer Benjamin. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-easter-2/commentary-on-john-1011-18-5.

Skinner (2018), Christopher. “The Good Shepherd Lays Down His Life. Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 80, 2018.

Stamper, Meda. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-easter-2/commentary-on-john-1011-18-3.

Vena, Osvaldo. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-easter-2/commentary-on-john-1011-18-4.