Who gathers around Jesus as he walks in the Temple?
When they gather around him, they ask him to tell them plainly if he is the messiah. Why?
Why doesn’t Jesus give them a real answer?
Why does Jesus talk about sheep?
Some Longer Reflections:
Your English translation almost certainly tells you that “the Jews” gathered around Jesus. The Greek is a little stronger: they encircled him.
But who are these people?
This time, the Greek original does not help. Those encircling Jesus are called the Ioudaioi, which most clearly refers to people who live in Judea. But the problem is that this term, when it is used by Gentiles, refers to people who live in Judea, and also carry out the cultural practices common among those who live in Judea, which is to say Jewish cultural practice. So this geographical reference carries also a religious-cultural content. But this is yet more complicated. John’s story is loaded with geographical references. Jesus talks with a woman in Samaria, and she calls him a Ioudaios, a Judean. That maybe only means that, to a non-Judean, he looks like a Judean. I have real trouble distinguishing between a Georgia accent and an east-Texas accent. My friends from Georgia or Texas have no trouble at all. But then, they can’t distinguish between a Minnesotan and someone from eastern Wisconsin, which is a fairly easy call where I live.
But it is still more complicated. Maybe the Samaritan woman is calling Jesus a Jew, in contrast to her own identity as a Samaritan. That would make sense, but then the scene for this Sunday is confusing. The storyteller appears not to have been listening when the story in Samaria was being told. The term, Ioudaios is being used inconsistently. Either Jesus is one, or he is not, and if he is a Ioudaios, then he is one those who gather around him in Solomon’s Portico. If he is not a Ioudaios, then the woman in Samaria was wrong, though the storyteller goes out of the way to make clear how very well that woman understood the Jewish faith, the Jewish God, and the Jewish Messiah.
So, whoever they are, they ask Jesus to speak plainly and tell them if he is the Messiah.
Why would they ask this?
First of all, they ask because they, like the woman in Samaria, know that the Messiah matters. The question is not a casual request for information. They are not even asking to see Jesus’ ID. They are asking because “Messiah” means that God’s Creation is on the brink of being turned right-side-up. This correcting of a damaged Creation is an enduring commitment of Jewish faith. Those who encircle Jesus in the Temple ask because they need to know if the hopes of their long-dead great-grandmothers are finally coming into play.
And they ask him to speak plainly because he has not spoken plainly. Ever.
Have you read the gospel of John? It is filled with striking scenes of crystalline beauty. And those scenes flatly contradict other beautiful scenes. And these colliding scenes leave an attentive reader with questions.
- Is Jesus a Judean or not?
- Did the Son come into the world to judge it or not?
Though you can, of course, invent all manner of solutions to these and other problems, you ought to notice that you are inventing solutions because of the insistent unclarity of the storytelling in John. Jesus has baffled people because he has not spoken plainly.
Even on the matter specifically under discussion, Jesus has NOT said, simply and plainly, that he is the Messiah. He has identified himself as the Sheep Gate, as the Light, as the Son, and as any number of other clearly significant characters. But not as Messiah, except when speaking to the woman in Samaria. There were no Ioudaioi there to hear him, so they couldn’t know that.
Why does Jesus give no clear answer?
His answers are soaring and powerful. They are also all powerful metaphors: the earth shakes, even now, as I read his answers. But the greatest, and most objectionable, quake comes when Jesus abruptly begins speaking about sheep. “You do not believe,” Jesus says, “because you you do not belong to my sheep.” In my commentary on John’s gospel, Provoking the Gospel of John, A Storytellers’ Commentary, I translate the business about “believing” (pistis) in this scene as “you are not faithful.” The word in present-day American Christianity clearly refers to the idea that there are things you must believe, and if you do not, you are not a proper Christian.
The word in Greek is different, especially when it comes out of a Jewish mouth. In my judgment, in such texts, the word pistis refers to faithfulness to Torah and to one’s Torah teacher. John’s storyteller makes all these terms equivalent: If Jesus is the “Word,” the “logos” in the first chapter of the story, then it makes sense that he be addressed as the logic of the Creation.
That’s not the problem. The problem is that Jesus in this scene suddenly is talking about sheep.
The problem is that he is saying that the Ioudaioi are NOT his sheep
This implies that others are his sheep. If this were simply a way of saying that Jews in general are not Christians, and vice versa, this would not be too much of a problem. This would be a true statement in the ancient world and in the contemporary world, and it need not trouble us any longer. But John’s storyteller is concerned with the kosmos, not religious factions. If Jesus is somehow co-terminous with God, then excluding Jews (or even Judeans) from his flock implies a fracturing of humanity that saves some and damns others, and this is notion that leads to violence all too often.
This chopped separation between Jesus’ sheep and the Ioudaioi has been developing throughout the tenth chapter of John’s story.
The language of care for the sheep is strong and reassuring. This reassurance fits nicely with other warm language in John. “For God so loved the kosmos….” “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep….” “In my Father’s house are many mansions…. ” It is this warm language that makes the gospel of John my mother’s favorite gospel.
But other parts of John’s story deny this warmth and reassurance to the Ioudaioi. They are even called children of their father, the devil.
If John’s storyteller means to be warm and reassuring only to some of the people properly called the “people of God,” then John’s story is a denominational rant at best, and is more properly called sectarian, even cult-like. God’s Creation does not need yet another angry cult. We have all had enough of the sharp (and often violent) division between Us and Them that such groups make.
But if God’s love is meant to include the entire kosmos, then we also, as interpreters, need Jesus to speak plainly about what sort of Messiah he is. If he is a Messiah whose main activity is to divide between Us and Them, and send Them to hell, I have little use for him. If, on the other hand, Jesus is a Messiah whose task is to heal the rips and fractures within Creation, and thus act out God’s embracing love, then I expect that faithfulness to this Messiah will transform me (and all disciples) and give us something properly called eternal life. Then, indeed, no one will snatch us out of God’s protecting hand.
May it indeed be so.