Lectionary Commentary

May 3, 2009
4th Sunday of Easter

Commentary by Russell Pregeant

See also: [Year B Archive]


Acts 4:5-12
Psalm 23
1 John 3:16-24
John 10:11-18

The gospel reading begins (John 10:11) with the Greek phrase, ego eimi (I am), which was used as a formula of self-revelation both of God (in the Septuagint) and of Hellenistic deities. Since the inflected, first person singular verb eimi already in and of itself means “I am,” the pronoun ego (“I”) gives it an emphatic quality, so that the connotation of the sentence usually translated, “I am the good shepherd” is more like “The good shepherd is I.” That is, the statement presupposes knowledge of the concept of the good shepherd, with which Jesus identifies himself. And a first-century reader with knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures would have no trouble in locating the background of Jesus’ assumption of the role of the good shepherd in contrast to “the hired hand who “runs away” and “does not care for the sheep.” (John 10:13). In Ezekiel 34, the prophet—speaking” the word of the Lord”—first condemns Israel’s leaders as false shepherds:

You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for the wild animals. My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them. (Ezekiel 34:3-7)

Then, against this background, the prophet has God assume the role of the shepherd:
“I myself will feed my sheep, and will seek them out.” (34:11) That is, God will rescue them from the places where they have been scattered (34:12-13) and “will bind up the injured…and…strengthen the weak” (34:16). But then in 34:23-24, God delegates authority and responsibility to David, who “shall feed them and be their shepherd.”

When Jesus proclaims himself “the good shepherd” in John 10, readers will
hear this proclamation in light of both Ezekiel 34 and John 1, where Jesus is identified as the incarnate Logos—the Word of God made flesh. In this latter passage, Jesus’ divine nature is clear, but 1:2—“He was in the beginning with God”—guards against a simplistic equation of Jesus with God. And in John 5:18-19 Jesus himself reinforces that distinction, declaring that “the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing.” Thus, when readers bring together these various elements—Jesus as Word of God Incarnate, God as Israel’s shepherd, and David, prototype of the Messiah as shepherd—the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd takes on a complex quality. Jesus, God’s Son-Messiah, in whom God’s eternal Word is incarnate, assumes God’s role in the world, thus revealing God (John 1:18). And we can piece together several elements in precisely how Jesus fulfills that role. Just as false shepherds in Ezekiel’s day misled the people, so the leaders of Israel in Jesus’ day failed the people and acted as hired hands who abandoned them. But Jesus, by implication, performs acts of mercy, as, for example, in the healing of the blind man in chapter 9, immediately before Jesus begins to use the metaphors of sheep and shepherd. And he also gathers the scattered sheep, so that “there will be one flock, one shepherd.” (10:16) This can mean either that Gentiles will be included or that the division between Johannine community and other Christian groups will be healed—or, perhaps, both. In any case, Ezekiel’s image of the healing of the fractured and scattered Israelite community is transformed to apply to the situation of the early church.

John 10, however, adds a crucial element to the Ezekiel text with the notion that, in distinction from the hired hand, he lays down his life for the sheep. The shepherd image is suited for this notion, since to defend a flock against predators a shepherd is in fact called to risk life and limb. But Jesus’ words in this passage stress the intentionality of his self-sacrifice; he does not merely risk his life but gives it up voluntarily at God’s explicit command. And when Jesus links God’s love for the Son to this self-sacrifice in v. 17, he forges a link between that sacrifice and love, a point that is made explicitly in 15:13: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Jesus’ sacrifice is thus a supremely costly act of love and, as 16:2 makes clear, those who follow Jesus may also be called upon to make a similarly costly sacrifice for the sake of the community: “They will put you out of the synagogue. Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God.”

The passage from 1 John, a product of the same community for which the Gospel of John was written, reemphasizes this connection between love and self-sacrifice. In 3:16, Jesus’ laying down of his life becomes the model for community members to sacrifice themselves for one another. But in 3:17, it applies the principle of self-sacrifice to a less dramatic but more frequently encountered situation—the poverty of some community members: “But if any one has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” And 3:17 then offers a broader point: the importance of translating words into deeds. To speak loftily of giving all, when life is not in fact in danger, is easier than ministering to the human suffering we encounter on a daily basis.

The reading from Acts 4 can complement the gospel reading, with its resonances of Ezekiel 34, in a different way. If Jesus as the Good Shepherd is one who ministers to human need, the Acts passage—describing the post-resurrection situation of the apostles—is a powerful witness to the empowerment of the church that witnesses to the resurrection. And it does this in connection with an understanding of Jesus’ resurrection as God’s reversal of human injustice and attempts to thwart God’s will.

The Gospel of John is often understood as an expression of mysticism, but Rudolf Bultmann saw in it an anti-mystical strain. Commenting on vv. 14-15, where Jesus speaks of the mutual knowledge between himself and the Father on the one hand and between himself and the community on the other, observed that

the relationship between the Revealer and his own is described as a reciprocal relationship. For the fact that they not only “know” him, but that he “knows” them shows both that they are determined by him and that he is determined by them. And this is the highest statement that can be made about the Revealer. For it asserts what was already hinted at in the comparison in vv. 11-13, namely, that the being of the Revealer is nothing more nor less than a “being for” them. In mysticism this statement of the reciprocal relationship between God and mystic is used to describe a kind of unity between the two in which all differences between them disappear, but where it is used in conjunction with the idea of revelation it naturally takes on a different meaning….Thus the mutual relationship is not a circular process, as it is in mysticism, in which the mystic raises himself to equality with God, but a relationship which is established by God….The revelation unmasks the deception of the mystical relationship to God, in that it never loses its character as address and challenge—an address which comes to [human beings] from beyond [their] own world; it unmasks the mystic’s striving for God as a striving to turn God’s address into his own human word, which he can hear in the depths of his own soul. (The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Westminster Press, 1971)

Bultmann’s comments raise an important question for Christian theology—the relationship between knowledge of self and knowledge of God. There is a strain in some popular contemporary thought, as well as in classical mysticism, that collapses the two into one and thus undermines the central biblical notion of revelation as a word from beyond the human world. But there is also a type of Christian theology that so severely separates knowledge of self from knowledge of God that one wonders how we could ever recognize revelation as truth if is in fact so alien to us. Bultmann was quite right in refusing to equate the knowledge of Christ (and God through Christ) in John 10:14 from self-knowledge in a simplistic sense. From a process perspective, however, it is possible to overcome the dichotomy between knowledge of God as an alien entity and knowledge of self, or between revelation as an intrusion into the world of ordinary experience and an insight into reality that comes from within the individual. If, as Charles Hartshorne in particular argued so powerfully, all entities in the world are parts of God as the larger whole, then to know oneself fully is in fact to know God also, and—indeed—vice-versa. Thus, when we read John 10 with this in mind, we can hear in vv. 14-15 an important undertone: when we know Christ as the one who knows us, we also come to know our truest selves. And in the context of the passage as a whole we come to understand that these selves are fulfilled only through the practice of self-giving love—which is to say, in binding up the injured, strengthening the weak, seeking the lost, and willingness to pay the ultimate price for the common good.

Russell Pregeant is Professor of Religion and Philosophy and Chaplain, Emeritus, at Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts and Visiting Professor in New Testament at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, Massachusetts. He resides in Contoocook, New Hampshire with his wife, Sammie Maxwell, who is pastor of the Contoocook United Methodist Church. As an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, he has served as Associate Pastor at Rayne Memorial U.M.C. in New Orleans and as interim pastor in Carter Memorial U.M.C. in Needham, Massachusetts. He is the author of several books, including Knowing Truth, Doing Good: Engaging New Testament Ethics, Christology Beyond Dogma: Matthew's Christ and Process Hermeneutic, and Mystery without Magic, which is a basic introduction to process thought. He is a graduate of Vanderbilt University Ph.D., 1971), Yale Divinity School, (S.T.M., 1963), Perkins School of theology, Southern Methodist University (B.D., 1962), and Southeastern Louisiana Univesity (B.A., 1960).