Easter 4A (11 May 2014)



  • Acts 2:42-47 & Psalm 23
  • 1 Peter 2:19-25
  • John 10:1-10

First Reading: Acts 2:42-47

The first reading this week is the final of the series of excerpts from Peter’s great sermon in Luke’s account of the Pentecost miracle:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42–47 NRSV)

This is vintage narrative, perhaps drawing on authentic traditions about radical community dynamics in the earliest Christian circles, known to Luke from the surviving letters of Paul. As a summary this passage suggests a larger pattern of known behaviours, although in reality we have very few specific stories to justify this impression lodged in our imagination by the story-teller’s art. Luke’s carefully crafted words create a positive impression of the first Christians as people devoted to:

  • the apostles’ teaching (Greek, didache – correct belief mattered to them, and to Theophilus, the intended reader)
  • their common life together (Greek, koinonion)
  • the breaking of the bread (presumably the common meal of the Eucharist, or “supper of the Lord”), and
  • the prayers (as a pious Jewish sect they were careful to observe the times for prayer)

This four point summary is slightly elaborated in the next paragraph, together with a comment on the (positive) impact which this behaviour was having on other people.

No matter what Theophilus may have heard about the Christians in his own time and place, Luke would have him know how well they conducted themselves at the beginning and what a positive response they earned from their fellow citizens.

Second Reading: 1 Peter 2:19-25

Unlike the pious believers in the Jerusalem community, the recipients of 1 Peter have not gained the approbation of their peers. Instead, they experience opposition and persecution, just as Jesus himself had done:

For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.

“He committed no sin,
and no deceit was found in his mouth.”

When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls. (1Peter 2:19–25 NRSV)

The final sentence of this passage links nicely with the good shepherd theme in John 10.

Gospel: Searching for the words of Jesus in the Gospel of John

The detailed voting results of the Jesus Seminar do not report any voting on this passage, but the commentary in The Five Gospels (p. 435f) reads as follows:

The words of Jesus in vv. 25-30 pick up the theme of the good shepherd elaborated in vv. 1-18 and develop it along well-known Johannine lines. As in previous sections, there is no echo here of the authentic voice of Jesus.

The dismissal of these Johannine verses as a “theme of the good shepherd” does not take into account the possibility that John 10 (like John 15) might preserve traditional material deriving from Jesus. Certainly, if there was any material in the Gospel of John that has a claim to be considered for inclusion in the database of historical Jesus materials it would be the two brief parables now found in John 10:1-5.

The notes this week will draw on the discussion of parable and allegory in John 10 from Raymond Brown’s Anchor Bible commentary (Doubleday, 66. Vol 1, pp 390ff).

Brown sets out to show that John 10:1-5 “consists of several parables,” while verses 7-30 represent allegorical explanations of those same parables. He notes the following twin-parable structure in these verses:

The Gate: 1-3a (parable) + 7-10 (explanation)
The Shepherd: 3b-5 (parable) + 11-18 (explanation)

Later, vss. 26-30 will offer additional explantion of The Sheep that occur in both parables.

Brown is not blind to the presence of early Christian catechesis in the present form of these verses, but he also wishes to leave open the possibility that the original impetus for that tradition might derive from Jesus himself:

In the Synoptic Gospels also, most scholars recognize that in the explanations of the parables … there has been a certain expansion in the interests of early Christian catechesis; but, as we tried to prove in our article cited above [“Parable and Allegory Reconsidered” Novum Testamentum 5 (1962) 36-45] underneath this catechetical expansion and application one finds traces of an explanation that may very well stem from Jesus himself. So too in John x, while not all the explanations of 7 ff. need come from the one time or the one situation, there is no reason to rule out the possibility that we may find among them the traces of Jesus’ own simple allegorical explanation of the parables in x 1-5.

The possibility that we may have a set of twin parables here is consistent with what we know from earlier forms of the Jesus tradition such as the Sayings Gospel Q. Brown cites the examples of 461 The Tower Builder and 462 The Warring King in Luke 14:28-32 as well as 107 The Lost Sheep and 464 The Lost Coin in Luke 15:3-10. These last two are perhaps part of a triple set that includes 465 The Prodigal Son in vss 11-32, although the prodigal represents a much more developed story than the usual brief parable.

Not surprisingly, given the close relationship of these parables to the story of the blind man healed by Jesus in John 9, these twin Johannine parables are both related to the theme of imperfect perception.

The Gate

The parable of The Gate picks up further traditional themes known from the Synoptic Gospels.

Brown suggests that Mark 13:34 already preserves the metaphor of the gatekeeper, although it is hardly an image applied to Jesus in that context:

It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake–for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake. [Mark 13:34-37]

Brown might be on firmer ground when he identified the theme of the coming thief as playing a part in this Johannine tradition. The unexpected arrival of Jesus “like a thief in the night” was a widely attested Christian theme: 012 Knowing the Danger.

Brown suggests that the original point of the parable of The Gate (vss. 1-3a) was an attack on the religious leadership of Judean society. The charge that they do not come in through the gate but gain access by other devious means implies that they are bandits and thieves who take advantage of the population for their own profit. Such a criticism seems to be implied by the tradition of the incident in the Temple when Jesus condemned the authorities as having turned a house of prayer into a den of thieves:

Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” [Mark 11:15-17]
= Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.” [Matt 21:12-13]
= Then he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling things there; and he said, “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer’; but you have made it a den of robbers.” [Luke 19:45-46]

Such a polemical interpretation of this little parable would seem appropriate in the context of John 9:1-10:21, while also offering a good fit with the circumstances in Jesus’ own life time.

The Shepherd

The parable of The Shepherd (vss. 3b-5) tends to focus more on the relationship between shepherd and sheep, and this represents a theme with ancient antecedents in the biblical tradition as well as in the ancient world. It is possible that Ezekiel’s criticism of the the leaders of Jerusalem as abusive and self-serving shepherds who prey upon the sheep lies behind this parable.

The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them–to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them.

Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: As I live, says the Lord God, because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild animals, since there was no shepherd; and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep; therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: Thus says the Lord God, I am against the shepherds; and I will demand my sheep at their hand, and put a stop to their feeding the sheep; no longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, so that they may not be food for them.

For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.

As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God: I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats: Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture? When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet? And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet?

Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.
I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken.

I will make with them a covenant of peace and banish wild animals from the land, so that they may live in the wild and sleep in the woods securely. I will make them and the region around my hill a blessing; and I will send down the showers in their season; they shall be showers of blessing. The trees of the field shall yield their fruit, and the earth shall yield its increase. They shall be secure on their soil; and they shall know that I am the Lord, when I break the bars of their yoke, and save them from the hands of those who enslaved them. They shall no more be plunder for the nations, nor shall the animals of the land devour them; they shall live in safety, and no one shall make them afraid. I will provide for them a splendid vegetation so that they shall no more be consumed with hunger in the land, and no longer suffer the insults of the nations. They shall know that I, the Lord their God, am with them, and that they, the house of Israel, are my people, says the Lord God. You are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture and I am your God, says the Lord God. [Ezekiel 34:1-31]

If we are correct in linking the second parable with this passage in Ezekiel it would support the idea that these twin parables were originally part of Jesus’ polemic against the Jerusalem authorities.

In the subsequent tradition this original point has been modified so that the story is understood as an affirmation of Jesus himself as the gate (vss. 7-10) and the ideal (true) shepherd (vss. 11-18). This reapplication of an earlier tradition is effected in several steps:

(1) First, Jesus asserts his special status as the gate — the metaphor is now personalized and applied directly to him:

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

The Gate is no longer simply the proper entry point avoided by thieves and robbers who reveal their true identity by their failure to enter at the appropriate place. Now the Gate is an attribute of Jesus personally; as also seen in the classic Johannine formula in 14:6:

Jesus said to him,
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life.
No one comes to the Father except through me.”

In contrast to Jesus (here considered not as ideal shepherd but as the entry point to salvation), the authorities (and by implication all who rejected the claims about Jesus made by his followers) are “thieves and bandits,” with a special rebuke perhaps intended for the Pharisees who had featured in the larger story of Jesus healing the man born blind:

All who came before me are thieves and bandits;
but the sheep did not listen to them [i.e., the Pharisees?]. (vs. 8)

(2) The next step in the reapplication of the earlier tradition is to identify the blessings given to those who enter salvation through Jesus:

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

Those who make Jesus their entry point to God will, according to the evangelist, be saved (a word with social and political connotations in the hellenistic world where rulers were saviors who brought divine blessings to their people). The idyllic quality of this salvation is portrayed with an image of pastoral contentment: the flock will “come in and go out and find pasture.”

(3) Verse 10 may provide a conclusion to these catechetical explanations on the parable of The Gate:

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

(4) We now see a series of further elaborations that develop and explain the parable of The Shepherd, and these will simply be noted here as they lie outside the scope of next Sunday’s readings:

In verses 11-13 Jesus is the model shepherd who will even die for his sheep, unlike hired hands who have no feeling for the sheep or wolves who simply devour the sheep:

I am the good shepherd.
The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep,
sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away
–and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.
The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.

This is a development not seen in earlier expressions of the shepherd theme, and it has to be seen as reflecting a post-Easter perspective.

In verses 14-16 the ideal character of Jesus as the shepherd is seen in his intimate knowledge of the sheep:

I am the good shepherd.
I know my own and my own know me,
just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.
And I lay down my life for the sheep.
I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.
I must bring them also,
and they will listen to my voice.
So there will be one flock, one shepherd.

In this elaboration of the shepherd tradition we see a continued development of the death theme, the introduction of typical Johannine Father/Son language, and an awareness of the Christian mission to the Gentiles.

Brown sees verses 17-18 as a short commentary on the theme of dying for the sheep:

For this reason the Father loves me,
because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.
No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.
I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.
I have received this command from my Father.

Here we have moved well away from the original thrust of the twin parables in vss. 1-5, with the focus now firmly on Jesus as the divine Son who has power not only to lay down his life but — uniquely in the NT — also to take it up again. Usually, the resurrection is described as an action by God from which Jesus benefited but here it is seen as something within Jesus’ own divine powers.

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