As a preacher I enjoy reading the various blogs and websites with commentaries on the lectionary reading for the week. Not only do I gain insight into Scripture from people in different, sometimes very different, settings than mine (which is always valuable); I also find it comforting to know that out there are a bunch of people just as perplexed and intrigued and excited and nervous about this God that we serve as I am. Some of them seem to be cruising along at flying altitude, which is edifying. Others are furiously treading water, which is a relief.
But of course seeing something done leads to wanting to try it yourself, so I’ve decided to write up my thoughts on the lectionary under the painfully honest moniker, “Last Minute Lectionary”. Herewith I present:
A few thoughts on this week’s narrative lectionary reading (John 10:11-18).
11-13 “I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd puts the sheep before himself, sacrifices himself if necessary. A hired man is not a real shepherd. The sheep mean nothing to him. He sees a wolf come and runs for it, leaving the sheep to be ravaged and scattered by the wolf. He’s only in it for the money. The sheep don’t matter to him.
14-18 “I am the Good Shepherd. I know my own sheep and my own sheep know me. In the same way, the Father knows me and I know the Father. I put the sheep before myself, sacrificing myself if necessary. You need to know that I have other sheep in addition to those in this pen. I need to gather and bring them, too. They’ll also recognize my voice. Then it will be one flock, one Shepherd. This is why the Father loves me: because I freely lay down my life. And so I am free to take it up again. No one takes it from me. I lay it down of my own free will. I have the right to lay it down; I also have the right to take it up again. I received this authority personally from my Father.”
19-21 This kind of talk caused another split in the Jewish ranks. A lot of them were saying, “He’s crazy, a maniac—out of his head completely. Why bother listening to him?” But others weren’t so sure: “These aren’t the words of a crazy man. Can a ‘maniac’ open blind eyes?”
22-24 They were celebrating Hanukkah just then in Jerusalem. It was winter. Jesus was strolling in the Temple across Solomon’s Porch. The Jews, circling him, said, “How long are you going to keep us guessing? If you’re the Messiah, tell us straight out.”
25-30 Jesus answered, “I told you, but you don’t believe. Everything I have done has been authorized by my Father, actions that speak louder than words. You don’t believe because you’re not my sheep. My sheep recognize my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them real and eternal life. They are protected from the Destroyer for good. No one can steal them from out of my hand. The Father who put them under my care is so much greater than the Destroyer and Thief. No one could ever get them away from him. I and the Father are one heart and mind.”
*Jesus’ “I am the Good Shepherd” parable follows directly from the blind man’s healing on the Sabbath in John 9. The religious leaders were arguing about who Jesus was, and they continue this argument in John 10:22-42. Jesus insists, again, that He and the Father are one – that He, Jesus, has been authorised. Unsurprisingly this does not go down well with the religious leaders, and it doesn’t exactly help Jesus’ case that he resurrects Lazarus after all this (in his book The Longest Week, Nick Page argues that it was Lazarus’ resurrection and the politics surrounding it that ultimately led to Jesus’ crucifixion). All of this needs to be kept in mind when reading John 10:11-18.
*Also emphasised: the sacrifice the Shepherd is willing to make, and how it is His own choice to make it. He has been authorised by God to make this decision. This is an essential part of God’s salvation plan: that Jesus Christ was a willing sacrifice.
*It’s also interesting to note that the man healed of physical blindness is also healed of his spiritual blindness, in that he recognises Jesus for who He is. He actually gets a bit testy with the religious leaders when they keep on questioning him, and understandably so: they ask variations of the same question and then refuse to believe the man’s answer! This man wasn’t much concerned with the hows or the whys – he says, “But I know one thing for sure: I was blind…I now see.”
*Another important feature is the repeating motif of the Shepherd’s voice. The (previously) blind man tells Jesus to point out the Son of Man to him, and Jesus says, “You’re looking right at him. Don’t you recognise my voice?” We need to read the Shepherd parable in John 10 in light of this. Here, we’re shown, is a man who could literally only hear Jesus’ voice, yet he allowed the miracle. In the same way, knowing and trusting in Jesus’ “voice” will lead us to “good pasture”. It will lead us to miracle.
*The sheep mentioned in John 10:14-18 are important. “You need to know I have other sheep in addition to those in this pen,” Jesus says. By “other sheep” He means non-Jews, or Gentiles. This would likely have been a very offensive concept to the religious leaders. Unlike Jesus, they weren’t keen on letting just anyone into “good pasture”. Jesus, by contrast, accepts anyone who accepts Him.
I think this point is especially relevant in light of the xenophobic violence that has flared up in South Africa recently. The root of the problem is actually remarkably similar to the situation we read about in John 9-10. The (previously) blind man’s blindness was attributed to sin. This was the common belief back then, and we see this when Jesus’ disciples ask Him, “Rabbi, who sinned: this man or his parents, causing him to be born blind?” If you believed as they did, then it follows that for the healing to have taken place, the man must now be without sin. This is in part why the religious leaders were so upset with Jesus: He was healing (cleansing) and accepting people willy-nilly. This was a direct threat to the religious leaders because it meant they no longer had anything on, or any sway over, people like the (previously) blind man – which is probably why the (previously) blind man was so cheeky with them, and got kicked out! The religious leaders couldn’t have any of that. It’s hardly privilege if it isn’t exclusive, and their very power and influence relied on this unbalanced insider/outsider social order. So no, the religious leaders weren’t keen to “let people in”.
That same fear and resentment drives xenophobia. Fear of letting “the other” in. Fear that their well-being necessarily threatens yours, because of scarce resources. Fear of changing the status quo. So it is in times like these that we, Christians and churches, need to emphasise Jesus as the Way. As the gate. As the Shepherd, who leads to “good pasture” for everyone.
*This might be a bit controversial, but we also need to look at the “hired hands” Jesus has so little faith in, who scatter instead of guarding the sheep. This was obviously a reference to the religious leaders who, as we’ve seen, weren’t all that concerned with the spiritual health of the Jews in general – their actual spiritual health, instead of how many rules they kept. But this is still relevant today. Church, I believe, is important – but only Jesus is the gate. We need to make sure that we don’t substitute church and its activities (easy, public) for following Jesus (harder, private). The two can look remarkably similar but they are not the same.
*We also need to take note of the fundamental truths Jesus tells us about the Thief and Destroyer; namely, that he comes only to steal and to kill. That’s literally it. There is no redeeming feature or value there. Jesus says that the sheep who listen to His voice do not recognise the Destroyer’s voice as their master. That’s very important, because if we aren’t listening to the Good Shepherd’s voice, whose are we hearing?
*It’s quite ironic that, in dying for our sins, Jesus Himself became like a sheep led to slaughter (Acts 8:32). This illustrates again the totality and comprehensiveness of Jesus’ sacrificial death: he died as one of us. He died trusting His Father – His Shepherd – to raise Him up again. He Himself walked the journey of trust that He expects of, hopes, for us.
*The shepherd/sheep analogy is a popular one in the Bible, as you’d expect of a people who spent a lot of time raising cattle. There are references in Genesis, Isaiah, Ezekiel, the Gospels, the epistles. What I find most intriguing about these references is how nurturing they tend to be. In Isaiah 40 we read, “Like a shepherd, he will care for his flock, gathering the lambs in his arms, Hugging them as he carries them, leading the nursing ewes to good pasture.” In Ezekiel 34, “God, the Master, says: ‘From now on, I myself am the shepherd. I’m going looking for them. As shepherds go after their flocks when they get scattered, I’m going after my sheep.’” We tend to forget that God has both feminine and masculine qualities. In the shepherd/sheep analogies we see his tender, nurturing side.
Prayer idea/s: Psalm 23. You can’t go wrong with this one.
Scripture taken from THE MESSAGE.