Lectionary Commentaries for April 22, 2018
Fourth Sunday of Easter

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 10:11-18

Osvaldo Vena

In Luke’s resurrection account, women go to the tomb on Sunday morning.

The first thing to be addressed in this passage is to whom is Jesus talking here. The answer comes from John 9 and the immediate context: he is talking to the Pharisees who, in this section and in the gospel in general, are equated with the Jews (see also John 9:13, 18, 22, 40; John 10:19, 24). They are the religious leaders of the people of Israel together with the priests and scribes. So, when Jesus says: “Very truly, I tell you,” that you is a plural pronoun and refers not to an individual but to a group of people, in this case, the Pharisees. The monologue that follows, then, is directed to them (John 9:41; John 10:6, 7, 20), though the community, reading over the shoulder of the evangelist, gets the message too.

A contrast/comparison is being drawn between two individuals: the good shepherd and the hired hand. They represent two completely different kinds of leadership, because that is what this passage, and the previous one in verses 1-10, is all about. The community is being portrayed as a sheepfold and its leaders are described, positively or negatively, as shepherds, thieves, bandits, gatekeepers, strangers, gates, and hired hands. All of these are figures of speech (paroimia), as the narrator lets us know in verse 6.

In terms of its literary structure John 10:11-18 follow an ABA’ pattern:
A. The good shepherd (11)
     B. The hired hand (12-13)
A’. The good shepherd (14-18)

The main theme of the passage is laid out in John 10:11: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” The following verses will unpack the meaning of laying down his life for the sheep, a typical Johannine theme. The main point is made in verse 13: whereas the hired hand does not care for the sheep because they are not his, the good shepherd does. They are his sheep, they belong to him, they have an intimate relationship with him (“I know my own and my own know me”).

Knowledge here has to do with the knowledge that friends and family have of each other, the emotional tie between husband and wife, father and children. That is why the analogy with God the Father is being made: just as God knows Jesus and Jesus knows God, so also Jesus knows the community and they know him. This intimate relationship between God and Jesus is so similar to that of Jesus and the community that one could say that through Jesus God is intimately related to the community also.

In the giving of his life Jesus does something for the community that no one else has ever done. All past leaders avoided suffering for the community. They came the wrong way, not through the gate, which in John 10:7 is said to be Jesus, and they came to take advantage of the people. Instead of giving them life, they took it away from them. But Jesus came to give them life through the giving of his own. He did this not as a victim but as a willing, voluntary sacrifice. “No one takes it from me,” he said, “but I lay it down of my own accord.” This, he said is a command “I have received from my Father” (verse 18).

Though situated during Jesus’ ministry, the gospel of John addresses the needs of specific communities in the post resurrection era. Scholars believe that the gospel was written around 90 CE, a time when the Johannine community was facing harassment from the leaders of the Synagogue, the Pharisees who had abandoned their people during the siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE and had gone to the village of Jamnia where they started the process of reconstructing Judaism. They are likened to bad shepherds.1 John 10:12-13 may be a direct reference to that event. In contrast, Jesus is presented as the good shepherd, the suffering Messiah who lays down his life for the flock.

In the eyes of this fledging Christian community, there is no comparison between these two kinds of leadership. One, postulated by the post-war Pharisees, was felt as exclusive and self-serving. The other, modeled by Jesus the Christ, was a reading of the Old Testament shepherd tradition that conveyed its true meaning: to be a shepherd means to sacrifice yourself for the welfare of the community, to give one’s life so that others may live. That is why he calls himself “the good shepherd.”

When the Johannine community affirmed that Jesus was the shepherd, they were not only making a Christological affirmation, that is, who they thought Jesus was, but they were also affirming what kind of leadership was expected in their midst. Jesus was not only a living, spiritual presence who was worshipped as God in the liturgical assembly of the community but he was also the model for church leadership. This “good-shepherd” model was therefore one that the leaders of the community were encouraged to follow.

Many of us have perhaps thought of ministry as a profession. But ministry is not a profession, it is a vocation, a call (vocatio=call). We have been called by God into service. The ministry is not about ourselves (profession) but about the people we serve (vocation). When we understand ministry as a profession, then we only care about ourselves — our career, our success, our retirement, etc. — not necessarily about the people we serve. We become hired hands, those who do not care for the sheep (John 10:13). But when we understand ministry as a vocation then we care for others to the point of giving our lives for them.

We, after all, are Easter people. What does that mean? It means that, following Jesus’ example, we invest our lives in other people’s lives to the point where we don’t matter anymore, only them. How are we as ministers giving our lives or — to put it in more contemporary terms — investing our lives in the people we serve? How are we being “good shepherds” instead of “hired hands?” The answer to this crucial question can only be found when we honestly face our own failures and recommit ourselves to the call we received when we started this journey we call ministry.


Notes:

  1. For shepherd as a symbol used to refer to the leaders of the people see Jer. 23:1-8; Ez. 34; Zeph. 3:3; Zach. 10:2-3; 11:4-17

First Reading

Commentary on Acts 4:5-12

J.R. Daniel Kirk

Peter and John have been instruments of divine resurrection power (Acts 3).

This divine might had previously lifted Jesus from death. That same power is at work as these apostles raise up a man who is sitting, disabled, and begging, by the temple gates.

Peter interprets the healing as a sign: it points to God who raised Jesus (Acts 3:15). This is what God had promised: a resurrection of a prophet like Moses (Acts 3:22). It seems, though, that resurrection is an annoyance (Acts 4:1-2).

I don’t hear much fear from folks in my circles that resurrection might be an annoyance. Most of the concerns the people around me voice say that resurrection could allow us to too quickly skip past the annoyance of the cross. Whom could this possibly annoy?

This question needs a careful answer. When it comes to who opposed Jesus and the early church, and who was behind his death, the details are important.

The people who orchestrate Jesus’ death are not “the Jews,” generally speaking. More specifically, those easy foils of Christian teaching, the Pharisees, Jesus’ recurring debate partners in Galilee, are almost nowhere to be seen during the last week of Jesus’ life in Jerusalem. The reason is, simply, that they had no official political power.

Moreover, the people who find talk of resurrection such an annoyance are not deemed “Sadducees,” as though the great point of dispute were some point of theological arcana, either (see Luke 20:27).

No, the people who are frankly disturbed by this teaching are the ones who tried to control Jesus’ life by snuffing it out. Those who arrested and tried and handed Jesus over were the high priest, chief priests, temple guard, and elders (Luke 22:50-52). The elders of the people, chief priests and scribes as Luke tells the story, collectively sat in council and condemned him (Luke 22:66-71).

So when we read in Acts 4:5 of the elders, chief priests, and scribes assembling to hear the case of Peter and John, we are seeing a confrontation between the powers that put him to death and the power that raised him to new life. Resurrection is an annoyance to those who would use the power of death in their attempts to snuff out the living presence of the power of God.

The witness of God

Acts suggests that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is an extended confrontation: God acts in Jesus through signs and wonders and miracles, the people reject God’s testimony, but God once more acts, and decisively, in raising Jesus from the dead and enthroning him at God’s right hand (see Acts 2:22-24). The people, confronted with this story, are pressed to take a side.

Through the healing in Acts 3, we see that this confrontation continues. The story of Acts itself is not so much the Acts of the Apostles as the continuing acts of God through the resurrected Jesus. “In what name or power” was the good deed done? “Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead” (Acts 4:10). God is still working through him.

Peter’s answer to his judges (not to Israel as a whole) is that their hopes of quelling the prophet from Nazareth has been undone by the very hand of God. Jesus continues to heal. Jesus continues to save.

Thus Peter cites Psalm 118:22, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone,” but glosses it with the identities of Jesus and those who condemned him: “This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone” (Acts 4:11). The risen Jesus had told his followers that the scriptures spoke of a messiah who was rejected and raised before being proclaimed to all nations (Luke 24:26, 45-46). Peter’s speech illustrates just such scriptural interpretation.

Now is the time of salvation

This story invites us to ground our understanding of salvation in deliverance experienced not only in the future but also here and now. It might seem to the English reader that Jesus’ name being given to us as the one “by which we must be saved” has the coming future primarily in view. But in the Greek this ties back to the healing of the disabled beggar.

Where verse 9 in English has Peter reflect back on the “good dead,” and “how this man has been healed,” the Greek literally says, “how this man has been saved (sesotai).” The “name of Jesus” is not a passcode to get into heaven. It is the power for the ongoing healing of every sort of human brokenness here and now. God, through Peter and John, through the power of the name of Jesus of Nazareth, saved the man: saved him from a lifetime of sitting and begging from people, saved him for a life of jumping about and praising God for life-changing deliverance (Acts 3:8).

Believing in the resurrection of Jesus is not, at its heart, believing that God did something to a corpse two thousand years ago (full stop). To affirm resurrection is to proclaim the greatest annoyance that any life-taking power on earth might hear. It says that ultimate power over the earth is still not power to control the end of a person’s story. God is greater than entropy and death. God is greater than crushed lives or limbs.

This greater power of God is still at work in the world over which Jesus has been enthroned as Lord.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 23

Joel LeMon

Many of us can only hear the first line of the Psalm in the King James Version (KJV): “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.1

With a simple metaphor in a concise and elegant line, this verse expresses the message of the entire psalm: Yahweh satisfied every need. The images shift throughout the poem, but that central idea remains constant.

Indeed, Psalm 23 delivers some of the most beautiful and deeply comforting images in the whole Bible. As such, this psalm is a favorite — indeed, the favorite — of many.1 But the imagery in this psalm is also full of surprises. So our reading and preaching of this text should not be sentimental, but bold, always keeping in mind the ways that its radical claims confront our experiences of suffering, fear, enmity, and alienation.

The enduring appeal of Psalm 23

The pastoral metaphor at the outset of Psalm 23 resonates so deeply with Christians because of texts like John 10:11 (the Gospel reading for this Sunday) and John 21:15-17. The history of Christian art has played its part as well, reinforcing and developing this image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd through countless iterations. Having encountered all of these images of Jesus holding and caring for sheep, it’s hard for us not to associate Jesus as the shepherd in v. 1.

We can also attribute the psalm’s popularity to its happy ending. With rhetorical flourish, the psalm describes a blessed present and a blessed future, filled with the enjoyment of God’s presence: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long!” (v. 6, NRSV). The venerable KJV, which so many of us know, in fact, seems to suggest that a beatific afterlife is in view: “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

Preaching such a popular text is dangerous, for sentimentalism can easily supplant exegesis. When that happens, our well-worn readings tend to mute the fresh word from God to the contemporary community. Thus we proceed with caution in mapping the structure and imagery of the text.

The journey of the Psalmist

The pastoral images that dominate the beginning of the psalm (shepherd, the verdant fields, and the waters of repose) actually work together to describe a journey that Yahweh oversees and guides. The rest in green pastures is in fact but a temporary repose (v. 2a). This psalmist is on the go, walking beside the water, along paths, and through valleys (vv. 2-4).

After the description the blessing that awaits the psalmist in the house of the Lord (v. 5), the text again pictures the psalmist in motion: “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life” (KJV). The word “follow” here (radaph) is better translated “pursue,” a surprising verb given that it is usually the enemies that are pursing the psalmist with an intent to overtake and destroy (e.g., Psalms 7:1; 35:3; 143:3). Furthermore, in this same verse, the word “surely” (’aq) is better translated “only.” Thus it’s not the enemies in hot pursuit. Instead, “only goodness and mercy will be chasing me down.”

The imagery of the final line of the psalm (v. 6b) also deserves another look. For most readers, the end of the psalm provides a picture of an unending bliss in the house of the Lord. The KJV is the basis for the NRSV translating the word shuv as “dwell” here. Some scholars reckon this to be a unique usage of the word shuv, claiming that it indicates a “return with the desire to stay where one ends up.” So, “I will dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long” (NRSV). Yet others rightly understand shuv here in its most simple sense: “to turn” or “return.” Given the prevalence of images of travelling throughout the psalm, it is most appropriate to read the last line this way: “I will continually return to Yahweh’s presence, my whole life long.” Thus the journey does not end at the end of the psalm. Rather, seeking after God’s presence is a lifelong enterprise, a long-term journey.

This journey consists of the “paths (ma‘galim) of righteousness.” Interestingly, when ma‘galim appears in the rest of the Hebrew Bible, we find it translated “tracks” or “entrenchments,” or even “ruts” that are made by the wheels of an ox-cart — the word ma‘galim is in fact related to the word for young cow, ‘egel. Thus, the “paths of righteousness” are more like ruts in the ground, groves for the wheels of your ox-cart. So, walking with Yahweh is finding your groove, and a righteous groove at that! To get into the righteous groove is to live in a way that promotes and sustains right relationships all around you, with the community and with God. To live this way glorifies the name (or the reputation) of God: “He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”

Jesus as shepherd and trailblazer

As Christians who read and preach this text, we must consider Jesus not only as the good shepherd of John 10, but also as the trailblazer of the paths of righteousness (see Hebrews 12:1-2). Jesus tends us and guides us into right relationships with each other and with God. In the psalm, the paths of righteousness do not lead directly from the green pastures to the house of the Lord. No, those righteous ruts go through the very darkest valley (v. 4). In Jesus’s case, the paths of righteousness lead all the way to the cross. Jesus has shown us that way (see especially 1 John 3:16-24, another lection for this Sunday) and calls us to follow him. The good news of Psalm 23 is that when we walk these paths of righteousness, we walk with God (v. 4).


Notes:

1 Commentary first published on this site on April 26, 2015.
2 For an extraordinary discussion of the ascendancy of Psalm 23 in American culture, see William Holladay, “Epilogue: How the Twenty Third Psalm Became and American Secular Icon” in The Psalms through Three Thousand Years: Prayerbook of a Cloud of Witnesses (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), 359-371.


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 John 3:16-24

Alicia D. Myers

Reading 1 John all the way through, it sounds more like a sermon than a letter.

And the community of early Christians hearing these words preached to them seems to have been one in need of some encouragement. Although the precise situation is debated, it does appear that there was something of a church-split happening in the community, a community that was already perhaps feeling a bit precarious in a Roman Empire that was not thrilled with their proclamation of faith in a crucified (and risen) Savior. Calling this time the “last hour,” the preacher describes an unidentified “they” who have “gone out” from the community, and thus left behind the other disciples over differing interpretations of Jesus’ identity and necessity for their connection to God (1 John 2:18-27).

While all this might seem tangential to our passage, it is actually quite crucial. This conflict, whatever its unrecoverable particulars may be, sets the stage for the admonition and encouragement in 1 John 3:16-24. The “left behind” Christians in the Johannine community were wrestling with issues of identity: how could they tell whom to trust?

Those disciples who left probably seemed convinced of their own teachings even if the preacher calls them “antichrists” (1 John 2:18-25; 4:3)! In the middle of this controversy, and uncertainty, the preacher of 1 John affirms that he and his audience in the community are the “children of God.” He writes, “Behold what kind of love the Father has given to us that we should be called children of God, and we are!” (1 John 3:1). He seeks to encourage them, not only of their own identity as God’s children — and thus as ones connected to God’s love, light, and life — but also of their knowledge, which comes from their divine connection.

In 1 John the “knowledge” the believers have comes through Jesus, who is the revelation of God’s life, love, and will for the world. Jesus, the Unique One (monogenes) and the only one called God’s “Son,” reveals to the world God’s love by living the way God desires: namely, by loving others “to completion” or “to perfection” in his decision to “lay down his life” on behalf of others (1 John 3:16; John 13:1-2; 15:12-14; 19:28-30).

Of course, this laying down is not the whole story. As Jesus tells the crowd gathered around him in John 10:17-18, he lays down his life so that he can take it up again. The laying down of his life is not the end, but only part of his glorification that demonstrates the victory of Life over death, as well as God’s gift of life to all who receive it (John 1:12-13). When disciples truly receive, believe, and love they imitate the example of Jesus, God’s Son, as they live out their own lives as God’s children.

In 1 John 3:16-24, then, our preacher continues his encouragement by reminding the children of God how their identity should be revealed in their own daily lives. In contrast to the “children of the devil” described in 3:10-15 with the vivid example of Cain and his “slaying” of his “brother,” Abel, God’s children should live like his Son, not slaying, but “laying down” their lives “on behalf of [their] brothers” (3:16; John 10:17-18; 15:12-14).

Since they should be willing to die for one another, they should also freely help one another when siblings are in need; they should give from their livelihood (bios) as well as from their lives (psyche) to help a sibling in need (1 John 3:16-17). Playing lip-service to love is not enough; after all, the preacher has already said that the one whose actions do not match their words is a liar, is in the darkness still, and does not have God’s word (that is, life) in them (1 John 1:2, 10; 2:4, 9; see also 4:20).

Indeed, the preacher continues, these actions — the daily loving of siblings in the community through care, compassion, and giving that are the demonstration of one’s “words and speech” with “work and truth” (1 John 3:18) — the children of God are confirmed again in their identity, even when their own hearts might wonder. “In this we know that we are from the truth and before him [God] we persuade our hearts — if our hearts should condemn us — that God is greater than our hearts and he knows all things” (1 John 3:20).

In other words, not only do the actions of others reveal their identities — are they “children of God” or “children of the devil” (3:10-15) — but our own actions are also revelatory. They unmask our own identities to others and to ourselves, and they can give us the confidence we, when left on our own, may lack. When we love our siblings, we show everyone and reaffirm even to ourselves that we are “children of God.”

The encouragement continues in 1 John 3:21-24: knowing our identity as God’s children gives us “confidence” or “boldness” (parresia) to approach God to ask for help, assured that we will not be shamed (see 1 John 2:28-29; 4:17; 5:14). This confidence comes from the unity, or abiding, that exists between Jesus the Son, God himself, and God’s children who have received God’s Spirit (1 John 3:24). Repeatedly the preacher reminds the children of their “abiding,” mimicking language of Jesus himself from the Gospel of John (see 1 John 2-4; John 15).

The children, as ones abiding in God — that is, remaining united with God by believing and imitating his Son — will ask and receive in accord with God’s will; it cannot be otherwise (1 John 3:9). Like Jesus, these children are assured that their Father hears them because they are united with him by means of the Son and the Spirit. Even though others may have “gone out,” the preacher encourages his siblings to “remain,” to “abide,” since it is only by being connected to God that one experiences eternal life (1 John 2:24-25; 3:23-24).