21 April 2013
Easter 4C (RCL)
This Sunday (the fourth of Easter) is traditionally called Good Shepherd Sunday. Most lectionaries include a reading from the 10th chapter of John’s Gospel. Years A & B in the RCL have much more “shepherd-y” readings than Year C. All three years include the 23rd Psalm. In this reading from John’s Gospel, the metaphor of shepherd and flock is used as a narrative devise for exclusion: You do not believe because you are not belong to my sheep. Not the warm fuzzy we hope for when we think of the Good Shepherd.
Chapter 10 is really the conclusion to chapter 9. Chapter 9 deals with the healing of the man born blind. When Jesus’ disciples see the man blind from birth, they ask who sinned, the man or his parents. Jesus replies that the blindness had nothing to do with the sins of either the man nor his parents, but rather that the works of God might be made manifest. Here in the reading for this Sunday, Jesus accuses “the Jews” of not believing the works. The works, then, have something to do with people coming to sight, learning to see what’s true. At the middle of chapter 9, the man’s parents refuse to answer the Pharisees, because the Pharisees had already agreed that anyone who confessed the Christ would be thrown out of the synagogue. John’s community has already clearly suffered that fate. They had learned to see Jesus as the Christ. Chapter 9 ends with Jesus accusing the Pharisees of blindness.
The Old Testament uses the image of the shepherd for the kings of Israel and Judah (see especially Ezekiel 34). The kings were supposed to shepherd the people, tend them, feed them and care for them, rather than profit off of them — it’s an odd understanding of shepherding. In the beginning of Chapter 10, Jesus says that all who came before him were thieves and robbers. Presumably, since John is using the shepherd metaphor, he has in mind the kings of Israel and Judah. Hence the question of “the Jews”: how long will you keep bugging us; tell us plainly, are you the messiah or not? Jesus answers by referring to the works, that is, restoring sight to the blind, and concludes by saying, “I and the father are one.” No wonder they wanted to stone him. He makes a much broader claim than just being messiah. He not only protects life; he is the source of life.
John’s community had been thrown out of the synagogue, and so had a particularly black view of “the Jews.” In light of yesterday’s events in Boston, we can ill afford the kind of exclusionary move the evangelist makes here: you do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep. But, perhaps we do need our eyes opened. Jesus, who dies on the cross, and the Father are one. This is a very different understanding of messiahship than the one the prophet Ezekiel rails against. In our effort to escape suffering, whether personal or political, we see power as a zero-sum game. I have to be more powerful than you in order to prevent you from harming me. The kings of Israel and Judah played politics with the nations around them; they maintained standing armies, engaged in realpolitik, maneuvered for power, just like the kingdoms around them. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, laid down his life for the sheep.
What binds us together in community is power seen as an open-sum game. The more I have, the more there is for you. When, working together, we can get more done than all of us working separately, then we entrust our lives to one another (just as Jesus entrusted his life to us). That provides no guarantee that we won’t be harmed — the world is still a random place. But it means we can be sure we will never be snatched out of God’s hands.