Another explanation

This coming Sunday is the 4th Sunday of Easter in Lectionary Cycle A. It is evident to Jesus that the disciples do not understand, so Jesus offers another explanation.  Commentaries have long asked how we are to understand the relationship between the two sections marked by “Amen, Amen…” (vv.1-6 and vv.7-18). Are the latter verses making an allegorical explanation to the already presented parable? The problem with such a view is that characters and imagery have changed. In any case, if the latter section is meant to be a clarifying or additional explanation, it likely was not any more effective.

In addition, there seems to be a change of scene/place implied (from “driven out…walks ahead…follow).  Whereas the opening verses were within the village: the courtyards and narrow streets on to which they opened. Now the setting is the open country into which the shepherd led the sheep for grazing, and where in the summer months shepherd and sheep might spend the night. Overnight the sheep were placed in roughly constructed round stone-walled enclosures. The top of the dry-stone wall was covered with thorns to keep out wild animals. Inside the enclosure the sheep were safe so long as the entrance was secured by the shepherd. He slept across the entrance as there was no door and no doorkeeper.

While this explanation (possible, but not definitive) gives a good reason for the change of symbols, it seems also clear that the unusual statement “I am the gate” makes clear that now it is only via Jesus that one can enter the “flock” and be considered part of the people of God.  It is the intimate relationship with Jesus that defines that association. It is also key that Jesus’ self-identification as the gate is primarily oriented to the life of the sheep – something made clear in vv.9-10 where Jesus explicitly identifies himself as the means for salvation: I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly (v.10b).  This restates one of the central affirmation of the Fourth Gospel: Jesus comes to bring life (e.g., 3:16; 5:24; 6:40, 51; 11:25; 20:31)

This is the third of seven ‘I am’ sayings with predicates in the Fourth Gospel (6:35, 48, 51; 8:12; 10:7, 9; 10:11, 14; 11:25; 14:6; 15:1, 5). It is introduced with the solemn formula “Amen, Amen I say to you” (amēn amēn legō hymin) to emphasize the importance of what is said.

It is good to address the phrase “All who came before me.” lest one thinks this includes a sweeping rejection of all OT figures. It does not. Remember that Jesus has already made references to Abraham and Moses as positive witnesses to him (5:45-46; 8:56).  This statement is more akin to OT passages like Jeremiah 23:1–8 and Ezekiel 34, in which the prophets pronounced judgment upon the shepherds of Israel for their failure to care for the people. Jesus may have had in mind messianic pretenders (cf. Matt. 24:24; Mark 13:22), or more likely ‘the Jews’, who treated the man born blind so badly. Of such leaders, Jesus says, the sheep did not listen to them. The man born blind certainly did not listen to them. Those who belong to Jesus, the true shepherd, do not resonate with voices such as theirs.

Image credit: Frank Merino, Pexels, image 7360551

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