A Provocation: The Fourth Sunday of Easter: May 7, 2017: John 10:1-10

John 10:1-10
10:1 Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.

10:2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.

10:3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.

10:4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.

10:5 They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.”

10:6 Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.

10:7 So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.

10:8 All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them.

10:9 I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.

10:10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

This week’s Provocation is excerpted from my commentary on the gospel of John (Provoking the Gospel of John: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2010).  The Provocation is long, but John’s story is so inter-woven that I thought it might be helpful to include the entire portion on this scene.  It would be nice if John 10 did not flow out of what Jesus says in John 8, but it does, and interpreters need to think about that.  My Provoking the Gospel commentary treats each text under four headings: Ritual Text, Intra-Text, Inter-Text, and Provoking the Story.  The first of these sections examines the scene as it appears in the flow of the life of a worshiping community.  The second examines the way the scene is woven into the larger story of the gospel.  “Inter-Text” looks at how the scene might connect with texts and situations outside the Bible, outside the Christian community.  And the final section considers ways that the scene might be explored through performance.

The John commentary, and other books in that series, can be ordered online  from The Pilgrim Press (www.thepilgrimpress.com).   You can also order them from Amazon, though you sometimes get sent to used-book sellers there.

Ritual text: The Life of the Worshiping Community

No matter which cycle of the RCL you are in, on this Sunday you are going to be reading a scene from John 10.  No matter which cycle you are in, you are going to be talking about shepherds, somehow.  Every year, you might very well find yourselves singing “The King of Love My Shepherd Is.”  This is Good Shepherd Sunday.  

This is the Sunday on which pastors (the title means “shepherd”) often talk about cute little sheep and fuzzy little lambs, thereby revealing to anyone in the audience that they know little or nothing about herding sheep, having never met one personally.  My uncle, who kept sheep, dislikes this Sunday because pastors tend to say things that simply are not true.  Suffice it to say that, to anyone who has worked closely with sheep, it is not a compliment to say that we are the sheep of God’s pasture.  Sheep will graze a pasture to the ground and will then eat the roots of the grass, making a desert, unless a shepherd moves them along.  Sheep will bloat themselves to death on green alfalfa, lacking the sense to stop eating even when their stomachs start to swell.  Sheep are rude, they smell bad, and leave a sticky slick coating on everything they rub up against so that you come away wondering what the attraction of lanolin in hand lotion might be.  

And in this passage, sheep sort themselves out of a mixed and milling mess of flocks gathered in a sheepfold, responding to and following the voice of their own shepherd and no other.  I have never seen this happen.  The flocks of sheep that I have been around are single flocks, not large mixed flocks massed together in a fold for nighttime protection.  But a colleague of mine claimed to have seen exactly this self-sorting take place when he was in Greece.  The shepherd came, called to his flock, and out of a milling multitude of sheep his sheep emerged and followed him out of the fold.  I find that hard to believe, but my colleague swore that he saw it.  

In a gospel that begins with a λογος, a word, an utterance, a voice, a story making order out of chaos, this ritual of sorting seems right at home.  In a mass, no one can tell one sheep from another, but the voice sounds and a sorting begins.  When the voice finishes calling, an individual flock has formed that is quite separate from the whole (otherwise indistinguishable) group of sheep.  What makes John’s community different from the rest of the Jewish community?  They sorted themselves out of the synagogue.  The story will have it that this sorting came as a result of responding to the voice that created the world by calling to it.  The implications are frightening.  


Intra-Text: The World of John’s Story

In the scene assigned to this week, Jesus delivers a statement of metaphoric self-identification.  “I am the gate of the sheep,” he says, without making it entirely clear what he means.  Early in the scene he contrasts those who enter by the gate with those who climb over the wall.  The latter are thieves and bandits.  When he identifies himself as the gate, he states that all those who came before him were thieves and bandits, again without adequate clarification.  Just who all is included in the roster of thieves and bandits who came before Jesus?  Sometimes interpreters imagine that this is a reference to messianic pretenders who preceded Jesus, though this would be the only reference to these pretended predecessors in the Second Testament.  Sometimes interpreters find a reference to members of alternative communities in this statement, but that misses the temporal sequencing that the storyteller lays out.  

In John’s story, the one who came before Jesus was John the Purifier, and though it is hard to imagine Jesus dismissing him as a thief or bandit, he is a natural candidate.  Probably he is rescued by virtue of having been named in the prologue as giving certified testimony to Jesus as light.  

The other option hinted at by the storyteller would be all the characters of Jewish history, particularly Moses and Abraham.  These two characters are cited by people with whom Jesus disagrees.  In chapter 9, Pharisees who guard Shabbat are divided over whether Jesus’ act in healing the blind man on Shabbat is clear evidence that he is not allied with God, or whether it is evidence that he must be Torah-observant, regardless of appearances.  A schism develops.  After further investigation, they call the man who was healed and direct him to give glory to God for the healing.  This is an interesting development.  This group of Pharisees seems to have reached a sort of compromise regarding Jesus.  His non-observance is a problem, but the healing is clearly accepted as proceeding from God, so they have decided to recognize the healing as divine as long as the man is willing to recognize the source of the healing as divine.  Jesus remains a problem, but God is recognized as potentially able to work on Shabbat.  This comes close to accepting the justification that Jesus offered in chapter 5 after he healed the man who could not walk, again on Shabbat.  In that instance, as in the instance in chapter 9, the problem is Jesus, who insists on claiming God’s prerogatives for himself.  In chapter 9, pushed to the wall, the Pharisees who are willing to accept the healing of the blind man as divine work, Shabbat or no, state their position clearly.  “We are disciples of Moses,” they say, linking themselves to a long, continuous stream of faithful tradition.  God spoke to Moses, after all.  “This one, we do not know where he is from.”  And they are correct, and their care is proper.  Moses came before Jesus and had had more than a millennium to prove his worth.  Jesus erupted out of nowhere and acts in ways that disrupt faithful life.  They do well to wait and see.  

The case of the citation of Abraham is complicated.  All the citations are in chapter 8, unlike the citations of the name of Moses, which are spread throughout the story.  Despite the localization of the citations, they follow the same large arc as do the citations of Moses.  Again, the conversation partners are identified initially as Pharisees.  As the scene develops, the identification shifts, and the conversation partners are now called Judeans.  This does not necessarily imply that the speakers changed; it could imply only that the Pharisees in question came from Judea.  The conversation began when Pharisees reminded Jesus of a basic rule of jurisprudence: one witness establishes nothing in court.  Corroboration is necessary.  They ask Jesus for evidence that does not come from his own mouth.  This is a reasonable request.  Jesus replies with a strangely convoluted claim that his father stands as a witness to his identity and establishes his credentials.  His claim could be taken as an admission of guilt (“You’re right: I am the one who testifies concerning myself, no one else does.”), or it could be taken as a speaking of the Divine Name followed by the claim that God stands in the courtroom offering decisive testimony, perhaps in the person of Jesus himself.  This claim would be blasphemous or lunatic, and the questioners kindly do not take it so.  They decide to grant Jesus the benefit of the doubt and ask for him to produce his father.  This is not an incidental request.  For one thing, they demonstrate a willingness to accept testimony from the unmet father if he appears on the scene.  Further, they are doing, through this willingness, what traditional societies have done through the ages: they show themselves willing to tolerate the excesses of a son if they can see the kind of mature man he may be expected to grow up into.  Jesus’ response is again cryptic, amounting either to a refusal to produce his father as the witness he had promised to produce or an attack on the faithfulness of his questioners.  Neither option is good.  

Since no one arrests him for this excess, he goes further.  (This is the force of the word “therefore” in the sentence that marks the transition to the next speech.)  After hearing what Jesus says, his conversation partners worry that he might be suicidal.  This concern, though perhaps meant by the storyteller to be ironic, must also be taken as genuine.  No threat of suicide can be taken as idle and meaningless, and Jesus’ conversation partners seem to know that.  They are behaving in ways that would save Jesus’ life.  

Jesus responds with another rant about “above and below” and the κοσμος.  To members of the storyteller’s audience, Jesus is simply recapitulating themes that have been knotted together since the beginning of John’s story.  To the conversation partners in the story, however, the rant can only be confusing.  Out of nowhere, Jesus attacks these partners and tells them that they will die in their sins.  They respond by asking, again, who he is to be saying such things.  

Jesus’ answer rambles and is even more convoluted than what has gone before.  He again recapitulates key thematic threads and threatens again to speak the Divine Name.  Despite all the provocation, the storyteller informs us that many of those who listened to him became faithful to him.  Remember that these conversation partners have been identified as Pharisees and as Judeans.  Now the storyteller has Jesus turn to the Judeans who had been faithful to him.  Now Jesus goes further.  

In response to a somewhat cryptic statement about being made free, these faithful Jews respond by calling Abraham into the discussion and asserting that since the days when Sarah and Abraham roamed the land following God’s promise neither they nor their descendants have slaved to anyone (see the discussion of John 8:31-36 for Reformation Day on page 000 for a fuller consideration of these verses).  While this assertion carefully overlooks the time of slavery in Egypt and the years of Exile in Babylon, not to mention the current situation of living under Roman overlords, it is a statement of identity, not history.  Jesus responds by accusing them of trying to kill him.  Remember, he is speaking to Judeans who had been faithful to him.  While the storyteller has told us that there were Judean officials who sought to kill Jesus, this is not that crowd.  Jesus acknowledges their claim to be children of Abraham, but then contrasts their family of origin with his: he does what he has seen from his father, they do what they have heard from their father.  

The Judeans return to the last part of the conversation that might have made sense.  They repeat that they are children of Abraham.  Jesus (in a statement complicated in verb tense and modal structure) again charges that the faithful Judeans are seeking to kill him and alleges that this is because they have a father other than Abraham.  

The reply of the Judeans reveals that they have lost patience.  “We are not the product of fornication but of faithfulness,” they say.  “God is our father.”  This is the claim Jesus has made for himself earlier in the story.  It is the claim that any Jew can make with justification.  The storyteller has Jesus respond with perhaps the most unfortunate speech in John’s entire gospel.  All the ranting about Judeans seeking to kill him comes to a climax.  The Judeans standing before him are accused of slander and murder and deep dishonesty.  And then Jesus, directly contradicting his own storyteller (see verse 31), says that the Judeans before him are not faithful to him.  This is a strange development.  I can only finish the scene by concluding that the Judeans are justified in their reaction: they conclude that Jesus is either an opponent-outsider or demon-possessed, or both.  

Abraham enters the scene one last time when the Judeans ask Jesus who he thinks he is.  He has claimed powers greater than those of Abraham or the prophets.  Someone had to remind him that such a claim by a human being is ridiculous and dangerous.  At this point Jesus offers the final offense.  “Before Abraham was, I AM,” he says, clearly claiming the Divine Name and its eternality as his own.  The crowd reacts as they would to a mad dog.  They pick up stones to deal with the danger while keeping it at a distance.  The audience to John’s story may have seen their act as murderous and vile, but the storyteller has shaped the scene so that an attentive interpreter must ask what to make of Jesus’ insistent escalation of his offensive statements.  Deeper and deeper he goes until Judeans who started the scene as supporters finish the scene with stones in their hands.  

Perhaps the storyteller (in chapter 10) means to have Jesus charge that both Moses and Abraham were thieves and bandits, after all.  This would indeed be a most disturbing development.  Add to the mix the fact that translators generally read οι ιουδαιοι in chapter 8 (and throughout the story) as “the Jews” and translate ο διαβολος not as “the slanderer” but as “the Devil” and things become much worse.  With these words John’s storyteller nourished a vile theme in the relations between Christians and Jews, a theme that has borne bitter fruit.  To taste how bitter, read The Devil and the Jews by Joshua Trachtenberg.  Or you might visit one of the death camps set up by people who, because they had been carefully taught who the enemy was, knew that the solution to all of humanity’s problems was to eliminate “the Jewish problem” by digging it out, root and branch and little children, and consigning it to the fire that Jesus lights in chapter 15 (in one of the next “I AM” sayings).  

If this were only disturbing, things would be easy.  It is worse than that.


Inter-Text: The World We Think We Live In

As I write this, another American political campaign is finishing its run.  With only a few weeks to go, the campaign is increasingly characterized by bitterly dishonest attacks, attacks that would be avoided earlier in the slander season because there would be time to fact-check them.  With only days remaining, the gloves come off and the worst in people comes out.  

This year has been particularly bad, it seems.  Perhaps I would say that during the late stages of every campaign, but this year seems worse.  The politics of anger stalk through the crowds at rallies, and not at the edges or in the dark shadows.  Voices in the center of the crowd have called out for the opposing candidate to be beheaded.  I am reminded of the violent political rhetoric that we heard in Israel concerning the Oslo Accords (1993) and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.  In Israel a violent argument raged, and extremists said publically that the Accords represented a danger to the nation that justified murder.  Perhaps no one expected the shouting to end in shooting, but it did when Rabin was assassinated in 1995.  

I read the rhetorical excesses in John’s story with a deep sadness, and painful apprehension.  No matter who the storyteller means to attack as “thieves and bandits,” the language is frightening and violent.  Thieves had their hands cut off and bandits were crucified by the Romans.  And in chapter 8 the storyteller has Jesus attack the children of Abraham as children of the devil.  

It is time for such language to stop.


Provoking the Story

There are thieves in the world, and there are bandits, real ones who pose real dangers.  Play this scene with such real and present dangers visible and threatening.  Such terms were applied to the rebels who incited the worst excesses of the Jewish Revolt against Rome, the Zealots who burned the food that was stored inside the walls of Jersualem because they wanted the defenders to fight with more rabid zeal.  

But there are also religious leaders from every conceivable kind of faith community who have used violent language to speak of their political opponents.  Priests have called people who work in abortion clinics murderers.  Rabbis have called those who seek negotiated settlements traitors.  People at political rallies have called Barack Obama, at this moment the Democratic candidate for President of the United States, a terrorist.  Play this scene with these people yelling out “thieves and bandits” from the middle of the crowd listening to Jesus.  Play the scene with someone yelling something about “children of the devil.”  

Now play the scene with Jesus saying those same words.


One thought on “A Provocation: The Fourth Sunday of Easter: May 7, 2017: John 10:1-10

  1. I am interested by the gate. Allegedly shepherds laid down across the opening of the sheepfold so they would know if a predator came or the sheep tried to get out in the night. But the text says the gate swings in and out. So there is freedom for these sheep to come and go – that would be a really good shepherd who allowed the flock to wander and seek and risk and yet always provided home.


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