Lectionary Commentaries for May 3, 2020
Fourth Sunday of Easter
Commentary on John 10:1-10
Lindsey S. Jodrey
Commentary on Acts 2:42-47
Jerusha Matsen Neal
Three thousand new believers may sound like an evangelist’s dream, but think of the chaos.
Those baptized on Pentecost came from different regions, speaking different dialects. Some may not have shared the native languages of others, in spite of a shared Jewish faith. There would have been distinct food preferences and different levels of financial security. There would have been different prejudices to navigate, different interpretations of Torah and different political proclivities. Just when one was beginning to learn the names of those seated at dinner, new faces would appear. Daily, the text says, “the Lord added to their number” (verse 47). It is an inherently unstable situation.
It was our church’s Women’s Society president who brought the problem home in a recent Bible study. “Someone must have been doing a lot of cooking,” she said. “Breaking bread” every day is hard work for those in the kitchen, particularly if the guest list keeps fluctuating. She had her eye on the logistics—the common sacrifices required to share a common meal. “It’s not just that it would have been expensive,” she pondered. “It would have taken so much time!”
Similar to English, the Greek word for “common” (koinos) has multiple connotations. It can refer to things commonly held or shared, as in, they “had all things in common” (Acts 2:44). But it can also mean things that are not set apart or holy. Common things are ordinary things, unconsecrated things, or even unclean things. Willie Jennings plays on this double meaning when he speaks of the “common reoriented”1 following Pentecost. The community is reoriented toward divine love through the resurrected life of Jesus. But this divine love is lived out in common ways—ordinary ways. Acts speaks of “wonders and signs” (verse 43), but in this passage, the signs described are common choices about food, time, and money. The common, “unholy” stuff of life is reoriented for the purposes of God. Apostolic teaching is important, but so is community fellowship. The material act of eating together and the spiritual labor of praying together are both seen as marks of faithfulness. All of life is drawn into the Spirit’s tether.
Luke is recounting communal memory in these verses, and a church’s stories of “the way things used to be” are often idealized. There has been much scholarly debate about how seriously to take this description. Selling one’s possessions to provide for those in need may seem like a radical act to many, as does “common” ownership of goods. But Western surprise over shared possessions is less surprising in other parts of the world. In my years teaching in the South Pacific, for example, there was a fluidity to the concept of ownership that allowed possessions to flow through the community to those in need. Furthermore, Luke doesn’t seem overly interested in painting a rosy picture of the past. This description of unity and public “goodwill” (Acts 2:47) is followed quickly by stories of persecution and communal discord (Acts 4:1-22, 5:1-11). Luke does not seem to be describing a utopia—which makes these fragments of memory all the more compelling.
What I find most remarkable is the picture Luke sketches of a community that is actively forming its members through practices of faith at the same time that it remains open to newness and change. It is a balancing act that any Christian educator knows, whether working in a seminary or a congregation. The goal of faith practices is to produce a distinct identity, to develop a shared vocabulary and set of priorities, to build a community that can carry each other’s joys and burdens. The problem is that such formation can often create a rigidity of form, a settled script of behavior, and a lack of porousness in the communal boundary. In other words, such formational communities are precisely the kind of communities that have trouble with people being “added to their number” daily. They can struggle making space for difference. And yet, Pentecost gave the early church a community that was full of difference, a community that needed to build a common life even as it changed from day to day.
These last three weeks in Working Preacher, as I have reflected on the sermons in Acts 10 and Acts 2, I’ve used the lens of performance to tease out exegetical insight. Performance, in this case, doesn’t mean play-acting. It means paying attention to the sermon event—how sermons intersect space and time. My premise has been that these preaching acts are not designed to give us a homiletic form to follow. Rather, they describe the disruptive, life-giving presence of the risen Jesus on the act of proclamation. They show us the Spirit-mediated marks of Jesus’ activity in the world.
I would use a similar lens to interpret this description of the early church’s performance of faith. The formation of a shared identity is part the church’s challenge, but so is an openness to its resurrected Lord. Since Jesus keeps pouring out the Spirit on those outside the community’s borders, difference and communal transformation become theologically meaningful. They become part of what it means for the church to show its own Spirit-mediated marks of Jesus’s activity.
The borders of the church—its identity and character—have substance. They can be seen and described in this text. And yet, as the text also makes clear, these borders move in time. They respond to the new face at the table. They learn new scripts and live into new roles. They make room for those that are different, even as they stand “together” (vs. 44) in worship, service, learning and fellowship. They are open to the surprise of the Spirit and to the awe-filled work of God’s salvation – even God’s salvation of the borders themselves. These are borders that perform, and through God’s help, perform faithfully.
- Willie Jennings, Acts (Louisville: WJK Publishers, 2017), 39.
Commentary on Psalm 23
Psalm 23 is classified as an Individual Psalm of Thanksgiving.1
In this type of psalm, singers praise God for God’s goodness in delivering them from various life-threatening situations—illness, oppression, enemy attack, etc. In Psalm 23, the psalm singer praises God as the good shepherd who guides the psalmist—as shepherds might guide the flocks of sheep or goats in their charge—through a myriad of life situations.
The familiarity of the words of the psalm can hinder the reader from truly entering into the meaning and intent of its words. Thus the paraphrase of Eugene Peterson might be a helpful beginning point for its exegesis. He interprets Psalm 23 in the following way:
God, my shepherd! I don’t need a thing.
You have bedded me down in lush meadows;
you find me quiet pools to drink from.
True to your word, you let me catch my breath
and send me in the right direction.
Even when the way goes through Death Valley,
I’m not afraid when you walk by my side.
Your trusty shepherd’s crook makes me feel secure.
You serve me a six-course dinner
right in front of my enemies.
You revive my drooping head;
my cup brims with blessing.
Your beauty and love chase after me
every day of my life.
I’m back home in the house of God
for the rest of my life.
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” “God, my shepherd! I don’t need a thing.” Which words are correct, which are true? Both are. The words of Psalm 23 are those of an ancestor in our faith who was delivered, in some way, from danger and who praised God for help in the midst of that danger.
The psalm singer takes on the role of a sheep or goat, animals herded and cared for by shepherds. These are animals that, without the care of a shepherd, would be easy prey for other animals in the open grazing land.
In the psalm, the shepherd provides green pastures for grazing, still waters for drinking, and right paths for travel from one grazing place to another (verses 2-3). In troubled areas, the protection of the shepherd provides safe passage for the flock (verse 4). And even when trouble is nearby, the shepherd makes sure that the flock can feed and water in safety and can lie down for a night’s rest (verse 5). Therefore, the flock can count on continued existence because of the faithfulness of the shepherd (verse 6).
Descriptions of God such as those found in Psalm 23 abound in the book of Psalms. God cares for, provides for, and protects those who are faithful (see, for instance, Psalms 30, 66, 91, and 121). This message of Psalm 23 is clear.
But when we examine Psalm 23 in its canonical location within the book of Psalms, new insights into its meaning may emerge. Psalm 23 follows Psalm 22, a heartfelt lament, one connected with the passion of Jesus in the New Testament. The opening words of Psalm 22 are the words spoken by Jesus on the crucifixion cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Laments in the book of Psalms are structured in a movement of five elements:
1. Invocation: The psalmist calls on God to listen.
2. Lament: Next the psalm singer tells God the reason for crying out God.
3. Petition: Then the psalmist tells God what he/she wants God to do.
4. Words of Trust: The psalmist recounts why God should be trusted at all by remembering God’s faithfulness in the past.
5. Words of Praise: And finally, the psalmist offers words of praise to the Lord.
The structure of Psalm 22 exhibits an escalation, a piling up, of elements of the lament. In the first strophe words of lament (verse 1-2) are followed by words of trust (verses 3-5). The second strophe contains words of lament (verses 6-8), words of trust (verses 9-10), and words of petition (verse 11). The third strophe, however, moves directly from words of lament (verses 12-18) to words of petition (verses 19-21), with no words of trust intervening.
Might we be permitted to read Psalm 23, an individual hymn of thanksgiving, as the words of trust that are missing from the last strophe of Psalm 22?
The two psalms share vocabulary and concepts, thus strengthening an argument for connecting them. Psalm 23 expresses confidence in God as shepherd to the psalmist. In Psalm 22, however, the psalmist accuses God of being far away and not answering the psalmist’s cry for help; of being silent when those around mock and shake their heads; of paying no heed when bulls and lions and dogs and evildoers surround; and of ignoring the fact that the psalmist’s body is shriveled and emaciated.
Indeed, in Psalm 22, God lays the psalmist in “the dust of death” (verse 15), “because” (verse 16), “a band of evildoers surround” (verse 16). The singer cries out, “but you, O LORD, do not be far from me” (verses 11, 19), for “trouble is nearby” (verse 11).
In contrast, in Psalm 23, even while walking through “the valley of the shadow of death” (verse 4), the psalmist will fear no “evil” (verse 4), “because” (verse 4), “you are with me” (verse 4). In fact, God prepares a table for the psalmist “in front of my troublers” (verse 5).
Reading Psalm 23 as a word of trust in answer to the heartfelt lament of Psalm 22 may add a new dimension of understanding to both psalms. Connecting them does not diminish the individual poetic and theological character of either, but rather creates a powerful statement of trust in the Lord.
- Commentary first published on this site on May 15, 2011.
Commentary on 1 Peter 2:19-25
“Resist the social order!” and “Take down the patriarchy!” are cries that inspire protest and challenge the status quo.
You will hardly find crowds rallying around the call to “Submit to your masters” or “Endure unjust suffering.” The modern West’s concern for being one’s own master and protecting one’s personal rights are vastly different from the concerns expressed in 1 Peter 2:19-25. Here, the letter urges believers in subordinate positions to endure pain for doing what is right in order to gain God’s approval. How can we preach an empowering message on a passage that seems to sanction and even spiritualize suffering?
In order to preach from what is known as the letter’s “household code” (1 Peter 2:18-3:7), it helps to understand the socio-political structure of household relationships in ancient Roman society. A large Roman household might comprise of parents and children, extended family members, and other dependents, such as slaves, who engaged in household related activities. Because the household involved a vast array of roles and activities to function, it was understood as a microcosm of the larger society. Subordinates such as slaves and wives who threatened the stability of the Roman household also threatened the stability of the Roman state.
Throughout the letter, 1 Peter’s main concern is not that believers appease the Gentiles who mistreat and malign them, but that believers actually live in a way fitting to the people of God while living among those who mistreat and malign them (1:14-18, 2:9-12). The letter’s household code offers a realistic strategy for how Christians can honor their socially prescribed roles within the Greco-Roman household, while finding a separate system of honor in the household of God (2:5; 4:17).
As a result of their new birth, Christians have a radically different set of values and behaviors and a new eschatological orientation that puts them in more contact and conflict with the world rather than removes them from it. As subordinate members of the household, slaves were expected to participate in the worship of the household gods and even help their master conduct certain rituals. The mere suggestion that slaves could refuse to worship the gods of their masters grants the slave more moral agency than their masters would have permitted.
The letter assumes that Christians, slave or free, possess the moral discernment and agency to do what is right, and endure unjust suffering as a result. Although a convert’s social circumstances may not change, their consciousness of God changes their perception of their situation. The main thrust in 2:19-20 is not pleasing one’s master but gaining God’s “approval” (“grace”) by doing what accrues “credit” or is commendable in God’s sight.
Because the author of 1 Peter knows that what pleases God will not always please one’s master, he is at pains to encourage slaves to patiently endure the pain (“beating”) that results from righteousness’ sake, not from their own mistakes (verse 20). Suffering and endurance have no value in and of themselves (see also Romans 5:3-5) as evident in how 1 Peter distinguishes in verses 19-20 between deserved and undeserved suffering. Getting one’s just desserts has nothing to do with being Christian. Suffering unjustly for doing right by God, however, is decidedly Christian in character.
First Peter presents suffering as the inevitable result of a transformed Christian life that is holy and obedient to God in a world that is hostile to the Christian way of life (1:6; 2:12; 3:14-17; 4:12, 16; 5:9-10). Perhaps because slaves had so little socio-political power and bore the brunt of undeserved suffering in the Roman household, 1 Peter addresses them first in its household code. The Christian slave’s response to affliction is instructive for all members of God’s household, who must also find the courage to remain faithful to God even if they are abused for it (3:9, 16-17).
“For to this you have been called” in verse 21a points back to the behavior encouraged in verse 20b, making it applicable to all believers, and connects that behavior to its Christological motivation: Christians are called to suffer for doing good in order to gain God’s approval “because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps” (verse 21b-d). The language of “example” or “pattern” (hypogrammos), which is to be copied, and “steps” or “footsteps,” which are to be followed, paints a tangible picture of discipleship. Christ leaves his followers with a moral paradigm and a previously trodden path to take that will not lead them astray (2:25), although it may put them in harm’s way.
Drawing from Isaiah 53, 1 Peter identifies Jesus as the Suffering Servant in order to show how Jesus models innocent suffering in ways that are both paradigmatic (verses 22-24) and atoning (verses 24-25; see 3:18).1
Notice how 1 Peter concentrates on the verbal aspect of Jesus’ exemplary suffering (verses 22-23): Christ did not commit sin and no deceit was found in his mouth; he did not return insult or suffering with insult or threat; rather, he entrusted himself to God who judges justly. This strategy is one of resistance, not passive resignation or suppressed indignation.
Resistance to sin and enduring trust in God is possible because of Christ’s redemptive work on the cross (verses 24-25). Although disciples are not capable of emulating Christ’s suffering when he “bore our sins in his body on the cross,” his atoning activity enables us to bear the wrongs done against us in ways that please God, if not those with political and socio-economic power over us.
First Peter’s strategy for coping with unjust suffering continues to remain troublesome for readers, particularly African Americans and women. It does not question the legitimacy of the Roman Empire’s slave economy nor attempt to take down the patriarchal structure of the household. It does not address the sanctity of free speech and the prophetic role of speaking truth to power. Instead, 1 Peter offers a strategy of nonverbal resistance that is patterned after Jesus. It speaks to the power of non-retaliation and the strength required to wield our words in ways that honor God. The substance of our response is not reflected in how quickly we can manipulate language to get what we want or hurl insults back at those who insult us or speak ill of those who are ill-treating us. Rather, it is reflected in the integrity of our actions and our awareness that we live in service to a God who will have the last word.
- Steven Bechtler, Following in His Steps: Suffering, Community, and Christology in 1 Peter, SBLDS 162 (Georgia: Scholars Press, 1998), 192-194. See also Joel B. Green, 1 Peter, THNTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 85, 88.
“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” These words of Jesus are familiar to us.
Following on the heels of a warning that “the thief comes to steal and destroy,” these words offer a welcome comfort when we find ourselves harmed by the systems of the world.
Sometimes when we read a familiar text like this one, we read it with certain expectations—to be encouraged or to find hope. And that’s a good thing! But for texts like these, it can be worthwhile to step back and consider a new approach so that our reading can be meaningful for the current moment.
One way to get a fresh perspective is to consider what we are bringing with us to the text. Hermeneutics is the field of study that reflects on these and other factors in the interpretive process. A reader taking on a particular hermeneutical approach intentionally brings certain questions or issues with them when they engage a text.1 For the Good Shepherd Discourse, a fruitful hermeneutical approach might be a sociocultural reading that pays special attention to power dynamics in the text and to “the relationships between that text and other social and cultural realities” like gender, race, or colonialism.2 Postcolonial criticism is one type of sociocultural approach that pays attention to the power dynamics produced by and at work in colonization. When applied to a text from the era of the Roman Empire, such a reading notices how the text interacts with the social and cultural realities of imperial life.3
A Good Shepherd, better than Caesar
Warren Carter’s work on this passage shows that postcolonial criticism produces an insightful and challenging reading of this text. The Greek and Roman political tradition presents kings and emperors as “good shepherds” who foster a life marked by security and abundance for the empire’s subjects.4 Throughout his story, John presents Jesus as an opponent to imperial rule, so much so that he is killed for his opposition to Caesar (John 19:12, 15).
Carter shows that the description of Jesus mirrors the role of the emperor as a ruler who keeps secure borders, a warrior who saves the people from attack or economic harm, and a benefactor who offers provision and even abundance (John 10:3, 9).5 In a Roman world where 70-80 percent of the population was food insecure, protection from theft and the image of a green pasture was a poignant promise.6
Jesus’ claim to be the ultimate good shepherd who brings abundant life is further supported by his actions of healing and providing wine and bread. The presentation of Jesus offers a critique of the Roman Empire, which claimed (as reported in the writings of Philo, Josephus, Tacitus, and others) to bring wholeness and wellbeing to society, when its structures actually brought sickness and poverty to most of its subjects.7
The shepherd, the gate, and the Lamb of God
While John draws upon imperial imagery to describe Jesus’ role, the power dynamics at play are reversed. Rather than a military warrior, amassing power through violence, Jesus absorbs the violence of the Empire.8 The claim to be the good shepherd mirrors one of the key expectations for a “noble” death, fitting of a hero in Greek literature—that is was done willingly and for the benefit of others. As he explains just after this passage, Jesus’ life and death are for the benefit of the sheep who follow him (10:10-11), and he lays his life down of his own accord (10:18).
In addition to presenting Jesus as the noble shepherd who gives his own life for the benefit of the sheep (10:10-11), and the ruler who serves as the gateway to abundance (10:9), John also presents Jesus as the Lamb of God. All three of these images stand in stark contrast to Rome, and expose the Empire’s reliance on violence the false promises of health and safety. In John, the timing of Jesus’ death coincides with the Paschal sacrifice at the temple, a symbolic a remembrance of God freeing the Israelite people from slavery in Egypt. Here too, we see the characterization of Jesus coinciding with overthrowing oppressive powers, even in death. The characterization of Jesus as shepherd, gate, and lamb proclaims the good news that God is on the side of the oppressed and that God will ultimately bring abundant life.
A complex challenge for our current context
Carter reminds us that just like the mixed metaphor of shepherd, gate, and lamb, the characterization of Jesus is complex. It draws upon imagery from the Empire, but it also resists it. But in some ways, it reinscribes it, claiming that Jesus is even more powerful that the ruler of the Roman Empire, and falling into the imperial pattern of wielding power to overthrow or control.9
As Jesus delivers this discourse, he tells the hearers that he is using a figure of speech. The narrator interjects that “they did not understand what he was saying to them” (1:6). Perhaps the hearers of Jesus’ Good Shepherd discourse didn’t understand what he was saying because the metaphor was messy. Or perhaps they were too embedded in the systems of the Empire to even see the other way to which Jesus was pointing. A way where violence is not used to control. A way of space for “other sheep,” a way for distribution of resources.
One reason we read this text alongside the imagery of Empire, was to get a new vantage point, so that we don’t miss an important word for us today. We should take care not to be comforted by this passage too quickly. While it certainly speaks to those parts of our lives where we might be disadvantaged or ostracized, we must open our imaginations to the more uncomfortable implications of this text for our current context.
It is easy to critique the Roman Empire of the ancient world, but there are far too many similarities to our current systems to ignore the message for our own sociopolitical context.
Let us be open to noticing new things about ourselves as we read this text:
Alicia D. Myers and Lindsey S. Jodrey, “Come and Read: Hermeneutics and Interpretive Perspectives in the Gospel of John,” in Come and Read: Interpretive Approaches to the Gospel of John, ed. Alicia Myers and Lindsey S. Jodrey (Lanham, MD: Fortress Academic, 2020), 6.
Myers and Jodrey, 10.
Myers and Jodrey, 12.
Warren Carter, “Jesus the Good Shepherd: John 10 as Political Rhetoric,” in Come and Read: Interpretive Approaches to the Gospel of John, ed. Alicia Myers and Lindsey S. Jodrey (Lanham, MD: Fortress Academic, 2020), 97.