Shepherd and sheep

This coming Sunday marks the 4th Sunday of Easter (Year C). You can read a complete commentary on this gospel here. The pastoral imagery of John 10 is always a part of the readings for the 4th Sunday of Easter:

Year A – John 10:1-10 (sheepfold, gatekeeper, sheep recognizing the voice)
Year B – John 10:11-18 (“I am the good shepherd”)
Year C – John 10:27-30

The pastoral images are part of a larger section that includes John 5:1-10:42.

The principal feasts of the Jews provide an outline for this long section. Fr. Raymond Brown (John, The Anchor Bible) suggests:

  • Jesus on the Sabbath (5:1-47)
  • Jesus at Passover (6:1-71)
  • Jesus at Tabernacles (7:1-8:59)
  • Aftermath of Tabernacles (9:1-10:21)
  • Jesus at Dedication (10:22-39)

It should be noted that there is the change of festivals at 10:22. The Feast of Dedication (or Hanukkah) is celebrated in the November/December time period about three months after the Feast of Tabernacles (or Booths). Nonetheless, Jesus continues the shepherd/sheep image that began in John 10: The feast of the Dedication was then taking place in Jerusalem. It was winter.  And Jesus walked about in the temple area on the Portico of Solomon. (John 10:22-23)

The Feast of Dedication celebrates the liberation of Jerusalem from the reign of the Syrian (Seleucid) king Antiochus Epiphanes. Antiochus had defiled the Jerusalem Temple in 167 BCE by building an altar to his own gods within the Temple sanctuary (1 Macc 1:54-61), and in 165 BCE Judas Maccabeus and his brothers regained control of the Temple and rededicated it to the God of Israel (1 Macc 4:36-58). The eight-day feast takes place in the month of Chislev (December), as did the original rededication (1 Macc 4:56; 2 Macc 10:1-8) and is marked by the lighting of lamps and rejoicing (1 Macc 4:59; 2 Macc 1:8-9, 18).

The Feast of Dedication was not a pilgrimage feast and so could be celebrated away from Jerusalem. Its mention in v.22, then, does not give a reason for Jesus’ presence in Jerusalem (cf. 7:1-10). Instead, its mention here, along with the realistic notation about winter, draws attention to the passing of time since the Feast of Tabernacles and Jesus’ continuing presence in Jerusalem. The reference to Solomon’s portico (v.23) adds a realistic detail to the picture, because the area of the Temple so known was located on the eastern side of the Temple and so would have been the most protected area of the Temple precincts in winter. [O’Day, John, New Interpreters Bible, pp. 675-676]

This week’s passage is succinct and calls to mind the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd (cf. John 10:11) – as it is meant to do.  The gospel establishes a certain cluster of associations around the word shepherd (poimen.) Each time the image reappears it evokes and develops the associations found elsewhere in the narrative. John 10:1-5 introduces the image of the shepherd by describing how a shepherd enters the sheepfold, calls the sheep by name, and leads them out to pasture. In 10:7-18 Jesus identifies himself as the good shepherd, who lays down his life for his sheep. In 10:22-30 he adds that no one will snatch the sheep out of his hand. At the conclusion of the Gospel, Jesus enjoins Peter to “feed my lambs…. Tend my sheep…. Feed my sheep” (21:15-17). The emphatic use of the shepherd imagery suggests that Peter’s task must be understood in light of what Jesus said earlier in the Gospel about what is means to be a shepherd. Jesus makes a prophetic statement that reinforces the connection by anticipating that Peter, like Jesus the good shepherd, would lay down his life (21:18-19).

One should also note that all of the shepherding imagery follows the narrative of Jesus’ healing of the Man Born Blind.  While worthy of further development, for our purposes here, let us simply say that John’s theological intent is to show the religious leaders as blind shepherds in their failure to recognize the healing light that is Jesus

The Good Shepherd. Crucial to the identification of the author’s purpose at this point is the necessary realization that he is writing about Jesus with the text of Ezekiel 34 in clear view. (Note: it would be good to pause at this point and read Ezekiel 34) In that passage, Ezekiel, speaking God’s word, rebukes and condemns the authorities of his own time. They had become irresponsible and thieving shepherds, feeding themselves rather than their flock. So God would take away their position and authority and become the shepherd himself. Finally he would appoint another shepherd after the figure of David. John sees all of this coming true in Jesus. God has become the shepherd in Jesus, himself Messiah and Son of David. Jesus’ fidelity to his sheep, his sacrifice for them, stands out in contrast to the failure of the stumbling, blinded, bullying authorities in John 9.

Metaphors come fast and often in John 10. There are the sheep — easily identified as the flock that Jesus intends to lead into good pasture (v. 9), those whom he knows by name and who recognize his voice (vv. 3–4, 14), those whom he intends to defend against thieves and robbers (vv. 1, 8, 10) and whom he wishes to join together with all others who, listening to his voice, will come into the one fold (v. 16). Jesus will effect all this because he is the Good Shepherd (vv. 11, 14), loved by the Father because he will lay down his life for the sheep. It is this act of total, loving self-sacrifice that is mentioned again and again as the central motif. Appearing first in verse 11 as the good shepherd title is introduced; it occurs again in verses 15, 17, and twice in verse 18. Though the shepherd-sheep metaphor was well known in the Old Testament Scriptures (as in Ezek 34), this laying down of the shepherd’s life is something new. It is the characteristic function of Jesus. He is the good shepherd especially because of his willing self-sacrifice.

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