Lectionary Commentaries for May 12, 2019
Fourth Sunday of Easter

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 10:22-30

Osvaldo Vena

The parable of the good shepherd is still the literary context for this section, but the physical context has moved now to the temple.

Jesus is walking in the portico of Solomon, an area in the eastern part of the building protected from the inclement weather of the winter, during the feast of the Dedication. The festival was established in 164 BCE to commemorate the rededication of the Second Temple after Antiochus IV had defiled it by building a statue to his own gods on the altar of burnt offering (1 Maccabees 1:54-61). Details of this rededication are found in 1 Maccabees 4:36-59. Today it is called Hanukkah, or the Festival of Lights, because it features the lighting of lamps.

This passage picks up themes from the good shepherd discourse of John 10:1-18, such as the mention of the sheep in verses 26-27 who, like the ones in 10:4,16, hear the shepherd’s voice and follow him, which results in mutual knowledge: “I know my own and my own know me” (10:14), “I know them, and they follow me” (10:27), a knowledge that resembles that of Jesus and God: “The Father knows me and I know the Father” (10:15).

Another thematic pointer is the snatching of the sheep from Jesus and the Father’s hand in verses 28-29 (see 10:12). This makes Jesus one with God, something he will affirm in verse 30, and which will provoke the hostile reaction of verse 31. In 10:12 it is the wolf who snatches the sheep and scatters them, while the hireling flees. In 10:28-29 it is “no one.” What is the identity of the snatcher?

In 10:12, the wolf is obviously the enemy of the flock. He will eventually eat the sheep, as wolves do. The imagery of snatching is very graphic. It conveys the idea of force on the part of the snatcher and weakness on the part of the one holding the sheep. But in this case the sheep are in God and Jesus’ hands and are therefore protected. No one can harm them.

This is a very strong message for the Johannine community, or any community, past or present, experiencing harassment on the part of the larger society, and which include undocumented immigrants, refugees, racial and sexual minorities, women, children, etc. God is stronger than the community’s enemies. We would benefit from never forgetting it, for it will determine our response to the harassment. As Paul said in Romans 8:31, “If God is for us, who is against us?

The religious authorities are asking Jesus whether or not he is the Messiah, a question posited also to John the Baptist in John 1. This enquiry has marked the beginning and the end of Jesus’ ministry, but only here it is answered directly (see also 1:19-28; 4:25, 29; 7:26-27, 31, 41-42; 11:2712:34). The answer is that as Messiah, Jesus does the same kind of work that God does. Here we have to distinguish between an ontological and a functional sameness. Jesus is not equal to God in essence, as later creeds will affirm, but functionally. He and God function, work in the same way. They are united in the work they do. They both give life (5:21; 10:28), they both judge (5:22; 9:39) and so on.

Eternal life is another theme we find in this passage. It is a concept that appears at least 17 times in John but just a few times in the Synoptics. It is obviously a Johannine concept and it is always related to believing in Jesus. This is summarized in those powerful words many of us learned in Sunday School: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (3:16). Now, as we know, eternal life in John has more to do with quality of life in the present than with extension of life in the future. The one who believes “has” eternal life (3:36).

This idea is repeated throughout the gospel, as any concordance will show. The point is: we don’t have to wait to enjoy this kind of life, we can have it right now. This is the unmistakable message of John. And it can be explained in terms of his particular context, one in which the community he belonged to was suspect of holding certain beliefs concerning Jesus that put them at odds with both the Greco-Roman world and the Jewish synagogue. These beliefs were that Jesus was the Messiah, something that contravened the Jewish understanding of Messiahship, and the Son of God, which was a political affront in view of the Romans’ valuation of the emperor as god. To have life eternal being affirmed was a welcoming message for John’s group.

Unfortunately, this message has been over spiritualized. With the promise that what really counts is eternal, heavenly life, people have been deprived of enjoying life on earth fully. Many have accepted this as a God imposed necessity and have suffered incredible hardships with the hope of a future reward.

The example that comes to mind is that of the slaves in the USA, who were told to wait for the “pie in the sky” while they were toiling to provide their white owners with an earthly one, and a very succulent one at that, building through their work the wealth that was to be the foundation of the capitalist system we currently live in. That was a deceiving way of using scripture to enslave, both physically and psychologically, in such a way that even when slavery was abolished, people remained bound to this mentality, and some still are.

In Latin America, land of extreme poverty, the poor and the underprivileged have been told the same thing. That is until Liberation Theology came along with the revolutionary insight that God was on their side, something very obvious when you read scripture, but which was obscured by what we call bourgeois hermeneutics. This revisionist reading of the biblical text brought much needed hope to the lives of the poor as well as concrete ways of being in the world through an emancipatory praxis.

Unfortunately, in the last 20 years or so, a conservative ideology promoting again a literalist and spiritualizing reading of the Bible has resurfaced in Latin America undoing the liberating effects of Liberation Theology and sending us back, spiritually and emotionally, to a view of Christianity that fosters escape from the harshness of reality into heavenly bliss. This ideology is modeled after European and North American conservative theologies, and threatens to snatch the believers out of the hand of the liberating God. May we oppose it with all our strength and follow the one who is our shepherd!

First Reading

Commentary on Acts 9:36-43

Jennifer T. Kaalund

Get up, stand up! A call to action.

Miracles are extraordinary events. In this text Peter performs the miracle par excellence — the raising of the dead. With the notable exception of Jesus’ resurrection, there are three other occasions in the Luke-Acts corpus where were we find this type of miracle: the widow of Nain’s son (Luke 7:11-17), Jairus’ daughter (Luke 8:49-56), and Eutychus, a young man who Paul literally bored to death (Acts 20:7-12). Here in Acts, it is Tabitha (Dorcas, her Greek name) falls ill and dies and then is miraculously brought back to life.

In the gospels, miracles are signs. They are demonstrations of the power of God (and by extension they also signify a relationship between the one performing the miracle and God; only a few had the privilege of raising the dead). Like road signs, miracles in the text also act as guideposts, leading people to God. Moreover, miracles are intended to serve as fuel for our faith; they compel witnesses to believe, to believe in a powerful God who is able and willing to intervene on their behalf.

The story of Tabitha’s miracle is told within the context of another miracle. As the progression of the narrative would tell us, while in Lydda, Peter found Aeneas, a paralyzed man who had been bed-ridden for eight years. Peter tells Aeneas: “Jesus Christ heals you; get up and make up your bed” (Acts 9:34). As a result of this miracle, all the residents of the town turn to the Lord.

Lydda is close to Joppa, so it seems logical that the disciples in Joppa would send for Peter. Though they had requested that Peter come quickly, Tabitha was already dead. Given the proximity of the two towns, it is likely that the believers in Joppa would have heard about what had happened in Lydda. Doesn’t the request for Peter’s presence indicate that the disciples in Joppa anticipated that there was something he could do to help Tabitha? It is an atmosphere of anticipation that facilitates the miraculous.

When Peter arrives in Joppa he is greeted by mourners. They are weeping and showing him all of the things Tabitha had made for them. Peter puts them out of the house and then prays. Taking the time to pray reminds the audience that Peter is not acting on his own accord. He turns to the body and commands Tabitha to get up. Anastethi is the same command that Peter had given Aeneas in Lydda – ‘Arise, get up or stand up!’ This verb, in some form, is found over 100 times in the New Testament. Peter’s command to the dead woman was really no different from the statement we may hear or say on a daily basis. Wake Up! Arise! Stand Up! On the basis of this miracle, many in Joppa come to believe in the Lord.

Tabitha’s awakening may be further illuminated by exploring how a change in our state of being can result in altering the lives of many people. We do not know much about Tabitha. We know that she has a Greek name, Dorcas. She is described as a disciple. The text informs us that she was “devoted to good works and acts of charity.” These acts of charity can be characterized as almsgiving. It is likely she was giving money to the poor and/or to the synagogue or ministry.

We can assume that the community of which Tabitha was a part loved her and valued her based on the way they mourned for her loss. Her brief obituary, perhaps, tells us all that we need to know. Although she may not have been famous or well-known, she was important to those who did know her. It is clear that she loved and that she was loved. They did not want to lose her. She was a disciple who was giving and faithful — should that we all be described as such.

The command to get up or wake up is associated with both action and belief. It should be noted that these are, in fact, imperatives. Peter does not ask or beg Tabitha to please get up. She is not given a choice. She is told to arise and then is taken out of the house for all of her friends, family and neighbors to see. Miracles may be performed secretly but they are not hidden away. They are publicly displayed. As a result, many come to believe. The implication of Tabitha’s extended life is that she will continue to do what she had been doing. She will remain devoted to doing good works.

In our contemporary society, the notion of being awake or being aware is similarly associated with a state of consciousness. For example, “Stay Woke,” a motto often associated with the Black Lives Matter movement was a rallying cry to those who were unaware of police brutality in the Black community. The term is not simply meant to invoke a state of awareness but it is also an indication of vigilance — one must not simply awake from their slumber, but one must also stand up or stand against injustice. To “be woke” extends beyond the Black Lives Matter movement and is a term used more generally in other instances of injustice and means to have an acute awareness and be moved to corrective action.

It is not enough to simply know. Once we become aware, it is imperative that we, too, act to improve the conditions of those who are suffering. Our actions can be the difference between life and death.

In the first century context, this miracle was a demonstration of the power of life over death. I think that power still exists today. It is this power that gives Christians hope; a blessed assurance that we live to live again. But perhaps even more so than the hereafter, this resurrecting power should flame the fire of our desire to create a more loving and just world. Like Tabitha, we devote our lives to good works and acts of charity. We should live a life that sounds the alarm, alerting the world that there is a God who is willing and able to act on our behalf. This loving and just God continues to resurrect death “things.” For as long as we are here in this realm, we must get up and stand up and bear witness to the kingdom of God here on earth.


Commentary on Psalm 23

Bobby Morris

Psalm 23 can and does provide calming comfort to individuals who are experiencing death within their close circle of family or friends.

The very images of a shepherd, green pastures and still waters coupled with the thought of “dwelling in the house of the Lord forever” lend themselves toward reflecting on and drawing hope and strength from the promise of eternal life through the resurrected Christ. This is a fair interpretive move, especially made through the lens of Easter and, therefore, at times of death.

Hope and reassurance are certainly at the heart of this beloved psalm. If we make these only about an afterlife at some point far in the future, however, we have only sampled the full measure of its scope and power. Psalm 23 is rooted in the real-life circumstances and experiences of the pastoral semi-nomad — a way of life that has existed from the very times of the psalm right up to the modern age.1 Therefore, Psalm 23 is far more about dynamic movement rather than quiet solitude, enduring trials rather than avoiding them, and life rather than death.

Modern western society has a largely romanticized image of the shepherd — an image to which this psalm has serendipitously contributed. The life of the Middle Eastern shepherd is, however, neither consistently quiet, easy, nor sedentary. For several months centered around the summer, there is very little or no rain in most of Israel/Palestine. And even in the rainy months of winter, some areas still struggle to get more than four to six inches annually. As a result, the pastoral life is semi-nomadic — with shepherds being able to settle for planting and (hopefully) harvesting winter wheat. However, moving about is the norm for much of the year in an effort to find ample pasturage and water, which can be quite a challenge, especially during the summer.

The land of Israel/Palestine is extremely beautiful in its own way. However, you will not find there the sprawling flat and fertile fields and green pastures of the American Midwest that go on for as far as the eye can see.2 In fact, much of the land utilized by shepherds is quite hilly and rocky.3 As a result, the daily task of tending flocks, who tend to venture widely, requires constant attention and can be dangerous because of both terrain and predators.

So while the shepherd may occasionally experience picturesque solace and repose, it is more the exception than the rule. Upon close examination, Psalm 23 reflects the movement, both daily and annually, that the pastoral semi-nomad would know well. To be made to lie down in green pastures presupposes having been brought there in the first place — motion which is commensurate with being “led” beside still waters (verse 2). Leading in right paths (verse 3) and walking (verse 4) also point to movement. Even the verbs “prepare” and “anoint” (verse 5) and “follow” (verse 6) point away from quiet and still toward activity.4

A crucial part of the movement of this psalm that is often minimized — perhaps unintentionally — is the movement which occurs in verse four. The traditional translation “through the valley of the shadow of death” contributes to the psalm’s common funerary use. However, the NRSV’s “through the darkest valley” is better because it does not unnecessarily limit the language, and our interpretation of the verse, to literal death.

The psalm here is not just (or perhaps even at all) referring to end-of-life death and the hereafter, but experiences in the course of this life that are deep and dark — some even so much so that they hint at or threaten death. Thus Psalm 23 is not about a disposition that can or even hopes to avoid difficulties and dangers in life. Instead, it is upfront about the fact that the movements of life will include going through deep, dark valleys.

By viewing the valley of verse 4 in this way, it becomes readily apparent that the rest of the psalm addresses not so much the time when we are “ready to lay our burdens down,” but the everyday, even ordinary, experience of life. Green pastures and still waters are not just for the sweet by and by, but for the here and now. Our soul, our “life force” (Hebrew nefesh) need not wait until the other side of the grave to be restored or renewed or refreshed. Here we have a God who offers, who has promised to the point that the psalmist can confidently speak of them, these things in daily life.

When it is summer, and the water and the pasturage are hard to find, and the shepherd is tired and the sheep are thirsty and hungry, and a deep, dark valley lies ahead — these are the times when we need to, and according to this psalm, can know that peril and evil pose no ultimate and lasting threat. It is especially during these times that God becomes our shepherd and makes sure that we lack nothing (verse 1), adding to green pasture and still water a prepared table and abundant anointing oil.

God’s goodness and mercy never simply follow at a distance, and certainly don’t maintain some kind of holding pattern until we breathe our last. Instead, God’s goodness and mercy “pursues”5 us, actively seeking to engage us and refresh our lives. In addition, God’s goodness and mercy does this “all the days of my life” (verse 6).6 

The psalm’s closing puts the final touches on a message that is more about life than death. Though traditionally rendered “and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever,” the Hebrew is literally “and I shall return into the house of the Lord for length of days.”7 Again, this meshes well with the annual, even lifelong movement, coming and going, leaving and returning that pastoral semi-nomads would have known. Equally for us as we go to and fro in this life, for as long as our days last, God brings us back into the divine presence from whatever would seek to separate us.8

Psalm 23 speaks to us in this Easter season to reinforce that the risen Christ promises not only to greet us in the midst of and beyond death, but shall also appear to and meet us behind the locked doors and in the dark valleys of our lives. We look eagerly to experience resurrection life beyond the grave. But let us not overlook the resurrection life — the very refreshing of our souls — that the risen Christ offers daily to those who follow him.


  1. Although, sadly, it is a way of life that is on the verge of disappearing as governments have worked over the past several decades to steer the Bedouin toward a more settled, sedentary way of life.

  2. The Coastal Plain, Shephelah, Jezreel Valley and even the Galilee do have flat, fertile areas that can become very green, but the scale — given that the whole of Israel/Palestine is not much larger than the state of New Jersey, is not even close the multi-thousand acre farms with which we are familiar.

  3. Such as the Judean and Samaritan Hill countries, and even the Judean Wilderness.

  4. Joel LeMon also lifts up the significant movement characteristic of this psalm in his 2015 commentary: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2372

  5. A much better translation of the Hebrew radaf, reflecting the active and persistent sense of the verb.

  6. This need not exclude the day of our death — but it clearly is not limited to it either!

  7. The Hebrew verb is shuv, not yashav.

  8. And again, this, particularly in light of Easter, means in the midst of and after death as well.

Second Reading

Commentary on Revelation 7:9-17

Barbara Rossing

Prior to the opening of the dreaded seventh seal, Revelation delivers an amazing and hope-filled surprise: a “salvation interlude,” assuring God’s people they are protected.1

Just when we are expecting even more destruction with the opening of the seventh seal there is a delay. The scene shifts. Four angels stand at the four corners of the earth, holding back destructive winds. Their mission is to hold back the judgments until God’s people can be “sealed” (7:1-8).

Even in the most difficult sections of Revelation, God’s judgment is not unrelenting. A similar “salvation interlude” will interrupt the trumpet sequence, between the sixth and seventh trumpet (Revelation 10-11). The interludes function rhetorically to shape the identity of God’s people as “protected, separated, praising, persecuted, and vindicated,” as Peter Perry describes2 — preparing the community to persevere in its witness even in the midst of the hardships that lie ahead.

Today’s text — a favorite for funerals and All Saints Day — portrays the multitude of God’s people standing before the throne of God, “sheltered” by God’s tabernacling presence. The scene divides into two sections, a heavenly vision (Revelation 7:9-12) and its interpretation (7:13-17). Worship and praise are central to both sections. Since those who belong to the lamb are said to be a multitude “that no one could count” (7:9), any literalistic fixation on the number 144,000 in the earlier vision of twelve tribes (7:4) is thus undermined.

“From every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues” (7:9; see also 5:9) underscores the multi-ethnic character of the people of God. Cuban scholar Justo Gonzales compares the multicultural perspective of Revelation to mestizo literature, addressed to people of a mixed cultural heritage.

John may have been a recent refugee to Asia Minor from Palestine following the trauma of the Roman-Jewish War. For Gonzales, Johns’ dual identity as a Jew writing to Greek-speaking people in Asia Minor, in a land and language not his own, places him in a situation similar to people with hybrid identities today: “The mestizo is at home in two places, and is not quite at home in either.”3

The white-robed multitude sings songs and waves Palm branches. Their daring hymns voice counter-imperial claims, saying that salvation, blessing, glory and power belong to God alone. Palm branches in the hands of these worshipers are a possible allusion to the Feast of Tabernacles, an Exodus link (Leviticus 23:40-43). For Revelation, a dramatic new Exodus is being undertaken not in Egypt but in the heart of the Roman Empire. Led by the Shepherd-Lamb Jesus, God calls Christians to “come out” of Rome (Revelation 18:4), in the same way that the Israelites came out of Egypt.

After the vision, one of the elders gives its interpretation, a typical apocalyptic question-and-answer format. The question-and-answer section also helps cement John’s identity with his community, since he — like them– has to ask for interpretive help. People who belong to the lamb’s multitude are those who have come out of the great thlipsis (“tribulation”). This word, which recurs throughout Revelation, is key to understanding the situation that John shares with his communities (1:9). The “tribulation” (thlipsis) of Revelation’s audience was not state-sponsored persecution but rather the social, economic, and religious marginalization of those who refused to participate in Roman imperial system.

In an incongruous combination of colors, the multicultural multitude washes their robes in the Lamb’s blood to make them white. This may be a reference to the washing away of sin commanded in Isaiah 1:16-18 (“though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow…”).

Those who come through the tribulation now “serve” God. Like a shepherd, God tenderly cares for the people — a wonderful image for Good Shepherd Sunday. The verb “shelter” (skenosei) invokes tabernacle imagery, the sense of God’s radiant presence or dwelling as a canopy or tent over us (see Ezekiel 37:27). The longest of Revelation’s hundreds of Old Testament allusions draws from Isaiah 49:10, the call to return home from exile: God’s people will not hunger or thirst on their journey through the wilderness, nor will any scorching wind or sun touch them (Revelation 7:16, a contrast to the sun’s scorching of evildoers in Revelation 16:7).

In an amazing combination of imagery, the Lamb Jesus now becomes also the shepherd, tending the flock, leading people to springs of water, and wiping away all their tears (a quote from Isaiah 25:8). Led by their Shepherd-Lamb, God’s redeemed people will come through the tribulation into God’s new Promised Land.

“Who is able to stand?” was the rhetorical question left dangling at the end of the dreaded sixth seal, after the four seals’ deadly horsemen and the fifth seal’s depiction of Rome’s victims under the altar. The interlude of Revelation 7 has given God’s people their answer to that question by depicting their identity as a redeemed community, wearing white robes and singing. By the end of the interlude of Revelation 7 all of us as God’s people can confidently answer: “With God’s help, we are able to stand.”


1 Commentary first published on this site on April 21, 2013.

2 Peter Soren Perry, The Rhetoric of Digressions: Revelation 7:1-17 and 10:1-11:13 and Ancient Communication (WUNT, 2. Reihe 268; Tuebingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009), 217.

3 Justo Gonzales, For the Healing of the Nations: The Book of Revelation in an Age of Cultural Conflict (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1999), 59.