Lectionary Commentaries for April 17, 2016
Fourth Sunday of Easter

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 10:22-30

Elisabeth Johnson

Throughout John’s Gospel, responses to Jesus vary widely.

This is the case once more in chapter 10. Jesus has been in Jerusalem since his arrival for the Festival of Booths in chapter seven (7:10), teaching regularly in the temple complex. His teaching evokes much discussion concerning his identity, origins, and authority, and results in a division among the people. Some believe that he is the Messiah, and others believe that he is demon-possessed, or worse, a blasphemer who deserves to die (7:40-44; 8:48, 59).

After the first part of Jesus’ good shepherd discourse in John 10, there is a similar divided response: “Again the Jews were divided because of these words. Many of them were saying, ‘He has a demon and is out of his mind. Why listen to him?’ Others were saying, ‘These are not the words of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?’” (10:19-21)

It is not clear how much time has passed between that discussion and the discourse that begins at John 10:22, which takes place at the time of the festival of the Dedication (Hanukkah). Once again Jesus is at the temple complex, this time in the portico of Solomon (10:23). Some Jews gather around him and ask Jesus to put an end to the debate concerning his identity once and for all: “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly” (10:24).

The problem, of course, is that regardless of what Jesus says or does, the debate does not end. Jesus responds that he has already told them, and that the works he has done in his Father’s name testify to him, but they do not believe, because they do not belong to his sheep (10:25-26).

The words and works of Jesus are open to many interpretations. The incident of the preceding chapter makes that abundantly clear. After Jesus heals a man born blind, the Pharisees see only that Jesus has healed on a Sabbath, and that therefore he must be a sinner, while others question how a sinner can perform such signs (John 9:16). The blind man gradually comes to realize who Jesus is and, in the end, worships him as Lord (9:38). Jesus says: “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind” (9:39).

There is a tension between God’s initiative and human responsibility that is not resolved in John’s Gospel (or perhaps in the entire Bible!). It is only with the eyes of faith that one can see the truth concerning Jesus. Those who belong to Jesus, who hear and recognize his voice and follow him, have been given to him by the Father (10:29). Everything depends on God’s initiative. God sent his Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him (3:16-17). At the same time, the result of Jesus’ coming into the world is that those who do not believe are subject to judgment (3:18-19).

The preacher cannot resolve this tension. Neither can the preacher argue people into faith with convincing words. (Even Jesus could not do that!) But the preacher can declare the promise that creates and sustains faith — the promise of the Good Shepherd to give us eternal life, the promise that no one will be able to snatch us out of his hand (10:28).

The preacher can also help hearers discern the Shepherd’s voice amidst all the other voices that clamor for our attention, many of whom claim to speak for God. Those voices are legion, but we do not always recognize how contrary they are to the voice of the Good Shepherd.

For instance, there are many voices that tell us how to grow closer to God: by having a prescribed religious experience, by believing the correct doctrine, by reaching a higher level of knowledge or a higher level of morality.

By contrast, the Good Shepherd tells us that everything depends on belonging to him. Never does our status before God depend on how we feel, on having the right experience, on being free of doubt, or on what we accomplish. It depends on one thing only: that we are known by the shepherd: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish” (John 10:28).

The voice of the Good Shepherd is a voice that liberates rather than oppresses. It does not say, “Do this, and then maybe you will be good enough to be one of my sheep.” It says, “You belong to me already. No one can snatch you out of my hand.” Secure in this belonging, we are free to live the abundant life of which Jesus spoke earlier in the chapter: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).

The abundant life of which Jesus speaks is not necessarily about abundance in years, or in wealth, or status, or accomplishments. It is life that is abundant in the love of God made known in Jesus Christ, love that overflows to others (John 13:34-35). It is eternal life because its source is in God who is eternal (17:3), and in Jesus, who is the resurrection and the life (11:25-26).

Amidst all the other voices that evoke fear, make demands, or give advice, the voice of the good shepherd is a voice of promise — a voice that calls us by name and claims us as God’s own.

First Reading

Commentary on Acts 9:36-43

Mitzi J. Smith

This passage begins with the words, “in Joppa there was a certain female disciple (mathetria) by the name of Tabitha, which being translated (into Greek) also means Dorcas.

Her life was full good (agathos) works (erga) and necessities for the poor (eleemosunon), which she herself provided” (Acts 9:36, my translation). Cornelius, the Roman centurion, also generously donated items to the people, which God noticed together with his prayers (Acts 10:2, 4). Both Tabitha and Cornelius understood, it seems, the flip side of privilege to be responsibility to those less privileged, including the colonized and marginalized. Tabitha bears the privilege and the burden of being the only named mathetria in the New Testament. The burden of being the first is the expectation of being a role model for all those that follow, to set the pace for future leaders. The first should impact the community from she emerged in positive, transformative ways, opening doors for others. To be among the few or even the first on some level is marked by ambivalence. Such an honor and responsibility does not mean that there were not others, contemporary and before her, that should have been, could have been called mathetria. Sometimes timing is everything. Tabitha’s story comes to us because of her death. Too often we only value the good works and gifts of others after they have spent their lives and/or die.

Full of good works, but not of the Spirit?

There are no women in the Acts of the Apostles that are described as being full of the Holy Spirit. This may be because a natural consequence of being full of the Holy Spirit is the spoken prophetic word. The twelve apostles have usurped the authority over the spoken word for themselves, choosing six men (aner) full of the Spirit to wait on tables (Acts 6:1-6). The refusal of the author to explicitly attribute the filling of the Holy Spirit to women in Acts does not mean that God’s Spirit did not fill them. In Acts, the Joel prophecy (2:28-32 LXX) is recontextualized or applied to “the last days” in which God is expected to pour out God’s Spirit on women and men, slave and free (2:17-22). Yet even Philip’s prophesying daughters are not said to be full of the Holy Spirit. But they are overshadowed and rendered ineffective by a male prophet named Agabus who traveled all the way from Jerusalem (21:10; cf. 11:28). Maybe it is all about the centralization of male power. So our text focuses on Tabitha’s “good works”.

How is one “full of good works”? Does it mean that Tabitha’s entire life was dedicated to others, even at the expense of her own health? Often churches rely on the persistent work of a few women (or men) to fulfill the church’s ministries. And those women are usually more mature women who have been convinced to be the woman who never complains. She expends all her time and resources for the benefit of others at the expense of her own well-being. Is this descriptive or prescriptive? It is one thing to draw strength from outside of one’s self, from God and from people and things, to meet life’s challenges. But to be expected to be a stereotypical “StrongWoman” or as Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes argues a “StrongBlackWoman” is quite another thing. The “StrongBlackWoman” rarely or ever says “no” or complains; everyone depends on her to step in when things go wrong. She seldom asks for help, and feels “compelled and empowered to serve others” endlessly. A “StrongBlackWoman” is not expected to break down, but remains an ostensible example of stalwart faith in the most painful circumstances. Thus, others seldom hear her cries because people expect her to handle everything life casts upon her.1 God’s Spirit will lead us to have balanced lives full of self-care as we care for others.

The author of Acts may not want readers to conflate the “in those days” at Acts 9:37 with “the last days” at Acts 2:17 when God will pour out God’s Spirit on all flesh. But maybe critical readers should conflate the two. Because the six Hellenist men (deacons) chosen to wait on the tables in Act 6 are full of the Spirit, we are not surprised when Stephen preaches the longest sermon in Acts.

Yet, it is in “those days” that Tabitha becomes fatally sick. Just like all other human beings, mathetrias who are full of good and just acts become ill and die. It is a human rite of passage. The disciples (mathetai) in Joppa prepare her body and place it in an upper room (hyperoon). Not everybody had an upper room; a second floor room. The eleven disciples met in the upper room in Jerusalem waiting for a special gifting of God’s Spirit (Acts 1:13); I wonder if Tabitha made that trip and could have been among those women upon whom God’s Spirit rested that day? Wealthy homes, like some that can be seen among the ruins in Pompeii (the ancient Roman city destroyed and fossilized by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE/AD). Tabitha quite possibly was not a poor widow, but a single woman of some wealth among disciples of similar social status.

The disciples in Joppa, female and male, upon hearing that Peter is nearby, send two men to summon him (Acts 9:38). When Peter arrives in the upper room, mourners and beneficiaries of Tabitha’s just acts and gifts meet him at the door (9:39). Unfortunately, it is true that there are few people, few disciples or any gender, who would risk their economic status in order to provide for the less privileged. By taking such a risk, our good works and just acts challenge and transcend unjust systems. Many of us first consider how our giving will or will not diminish or increase our living. We are willing to talk about “dying for Christ” but not risking our living for others. The world will never be a better place as long as the Tabitha’s (with adjustments for self-care) are few. And even if their bodies experience a resurrection in this life, like Tabitha’s, even that resurrected body was a mortal one. It is the spirit of Tabitha, the Spirit in her, that we hope will take on an immortality among the living. Tabitha used her privilege — her wealth, just acts and gifts, and prophetic speech — for the benefit of the less privileged: the widows, indigent, the hungry, depressed, oppressed, marginalized, and penalized.



1 Chanequa Walker-Barnes, Too Heavy a Yoke. Black Women and the Burden of Strength (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2014), 16-17.


Commentary on Psalm 23

Kelly J. Murphy

Even audiences largely unfamiliar with the Bible’s contents are likely to know phrases from Psalm 23 (though whether or not they know what they are hearing is biblical is another question!).

Used in countless television scenes and movie shoots, often as protagonists stumble toward their inevitable death or as mourners huddle around a graveside, the invocation of 23:4 in popular culture has lead many to associate this psalm of trust with death and mourning.

From the perspective of form criticism, Psalm 23 is a “song of trust,” as are Psalms 4, 11, 27, 16, 62, and 131. Songs of trust have two things in common: a perceived calamity of some kind and trust that the calamity or disaster shall pass and all will be well. In fact, as scholars often note, in these songs of trust it is the very crisis that instigates the psalmist to cry out in trust — and not, as one might expect, in despondency or dejection. For example, in Psalm 27, trust comes even when standing in the midst of flesh-devouring evildoers and with armies encamped all around (27:1-3).

Yet what crisis was Psalm 23 addressing? And was that crisis one that centered on death, as is so often the case when the psalm is invoked today? Psalm 23 is quiet on the crisis that led to its composition. Rather it functions to remind its audience of the relationship between God and God’s people — and, perhaps most importantly, the psalm reminds readers about the beauties of living life in the here and now even amid the usual darkness that accompanies day-to-day life. The psalm begins with a faithful and hopeful claim, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” As scholars often note, the Hebrew verb haser, translated in the NRSV as “want,” is same verb found in Deuteronomy 2:7, “Surely the Lord your God has blessed you in all your undertakings; he knows your going through this great wilderness. These forty years the Lord your God has been with you; you have lacked nothing” (compare Nehemiah 9:21, “Forty years you sustained them in the wildness so that they lacked nothing”). The invocation of two passages related to the forty years of wandering following the Exodus is noteworthy: God took care of the people then as they wandered through the desert. To be sure, life wasn’t always easy — but it was life. Those forty years might have seen a lot of grumbling and complaining, but they also saw manna free from heaven, the birth of a new generation, and eventual progress to the Promised Land. God cared for the wandering people — and they lacked nothing. The benefits of the relationship are clear: have faith in the God who shepherds you through the wilderness, for history tells you that this God will not let you lack what you need. This God will lead you to the Promised Land, providing you green pastures (food), still waters (drink), and a straight path (protection).  

The shepherd metaphor continues, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff — they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4). Though the King James translation — the “valley of the shadow of death” — is most famous, the more appropriate translation from the original Hebrew is likely something more akin to “darkest valley” (NRSV) or “deepest darkness” (New Jewish Publication Society). In fact, a number of interpreters over the years have understood the passage more in line with these recent translations, which shift the focus away from the only possible mention of death in a psalm that otherwise focuses on a shepherd sustaining the life of the flock. For example, Martin Luther noted how odd it was that the beginning of the psalm — which claims that God provides and the psalmist does not want — is followed by the well-known passage in v. 4. Nevertheless, those in the know recognize that God is nevertheless shepherding them through these dark experiences, keeping them safe and guiding them (even if, per Luther, “the world cannot see this rich, splendid comfort of the Christians, that they want nothing” [Luther, Psalm 23:4]). Despite how perplexing it might be while we stumble our way through the darkness, hope and trust are appropriate responses; they keep us moving toward life.

The final two verses of the psalm move to the second metaphor: God is a gracious host who prepares a banquet table for the psalmist (see Psalm 92:11). This table is spread “in the presence of my enemies,” who seem to watch from the sidelines as God anoints the head of the psalmist and fills the psalmist’s cup to overflowing (23:5). The psalm continues, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow (radap) me all the days of my life.” The Hebrew word translated in the NRSV as “follow” is also found in a number of verses scattered throughout the larger biblical text that deal with enemies, but always as “pursue.” A few examples: “The enemy said, ‘I will pursue (radap), I will overtake, I will divide the spoil, my desire shall have its fill of them. I will draw my sword, my hand shall destroy them’” (Exodus 15:9); “then let the enemy pursue (radap) and overtake me, trample my life to the ground” (Psalm 7:5); “For the enemy has pursued (radap) me, crushing my life to the ground, making me sit in darkness like those long dead” (Psalm 143:3); “Israel has spurned the good; the enemy shall pursue (radap) him” (Hosea 8:3). Playfully, Psalm 23:6 turns the image of an enemy who pursues — a frightening image to be sure — into something wonderful, good, and life-affirming. Accordingly, a more accurate reading might be, “Surely goodness and mercy shall pursue me all the days of my life.” The psalm ends with yet another nod toward life and living: “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long”; here the “house of the Lord” refers to the Temple (see Psalm 27:4).  Again, the psalm emphasizes life in there here-and-now, and the ways in which life in the here-and-now can be joyous and banquet-filled, especially if one trusts in guidance and protection of the shepherd and the benevolent provider of the banquet.

Psalm 23 reminds readers that God sustains, provides, and cares for his flock not once but time and time again — fleeing from Egypt, returning from Exile, and as we walk through darkness.  Psalm 23 reminds readers that goodness can pursue them as well as travails. Moreover, in this Easter season, Psalm 23 serves a reminder to live — in the face of danger and misfortune, even in the shadows of darkness that might surround us, and to know that in living we will be sustained.


Second Reading

Commentary on Revelation 7:9-17

Israel Kamudzandu

The theology of baptism is given depth of meaning in the book of Revelation, especially in chapter 7:9 – 17 and in this chapter, the reader is drawn to the central message of being a Christian and that is the sealing of the saints.

Revelation calls Christians to remember that they are not sealed or baptized from challenges of life but rather we are made ready to go through whatever comes against us in our faith journey. In other words, baptism does not exempt us from sickness, betrayals, wars and other calamities but our participation in it signals God’s presence in and around our lives through and beyond this life. The tension between the so – called “already,” and “not yet,” eschatology orients readers of Revelation to a life in the between times.1  In these times, God’s faithful witnesses are gathered from every part of the world and they form what Revelation calls the “Israel of God,” sealed in 7:4 and are from every nation and tribe and people and language (7:9). Theologically, Revelation uses the term “Israel of God,” to refer to the ecclesial faith community and this is inclusive of all nations, races, ethnicities, tribes and languages from all over the world.

Many Christians have asked about the nature of the Church in its eschatological and heavenly perspective, and that question is addressed in Revelation chapter 7 in where John informs readers of two kinds of churches, namely: the church militant, which is the one still on earth and the church triumphant, which the one in heaven where the ones who are dressed in white robes stand before the presence of the Almighty God and the Lamb (7:9, 13 – 14).2 The community of faith or the church on earth is given its full picture in the number 144, 000 which in theological terms is the church triumphant made up of an incalculable number of all global Christians. Chapter seven is like a movie whereby the audience is held in suspense until the true genre is revealed. In the midst of persecution such as the recent killing of Christians in Iraqi, Libya and Syria and other parts of the world, chapter 7 reminds believers that God will always protect His people and this security is hidden from humanity because the mystery of death and God’s presence in the chaos of life is unfathomable. The lesson we can learn from chapter 7 is that in persecution, the reality of God’s protection on the faithful is authentic and real.

The sealed number of God’s people in 7:4 that John is made to see is indeed the ‘triumphant church,’ whose voices proclaims God’s action of deliverance. In fact, their loud voices can also be interpreted as a testimony of their salvation. Christians in the 21st century and living in affluent are probably shielded from persecution and have no knowledge of what ‘witnessing,’ implies. In the context of Revelation 7:10, the multitude claims God’s victory because they are martyrs who have shade their blood as a form of witness to Jesus Christ. Their celebration is not just for their salvation but they celebrate their triumphant passage through persecution.3 In other words, witnessing is not just claiming to be a Christian but it means triumphant participation through one’s own death and experiencing the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. Christianity is about participation and throughout the New Testament Jesus is demonstrating authentic Christianity (John 13:3 – 5 cf. Matthew 26:14 -39). While many Christians want to go to heaven, many miss the point that before heaven, there is tribulation and going through this ordeal results in one being part of the celebrating triumphant Church in 7: 9 – 17.

The lesson is not that all Christians must shed blood as a form of testimony but rather, all Christians are candidates of tribulation in form or the other and in whatever comes their way, it is paramount to follow the Lamb’s way. The futuristic perspective of Revelation’s framework gives hope to Christians in that their present struggles determines their future with God, the Lamb and the Holy Spirit. Those who face their challenges with faith and trust in God are the ones who are participating and being washed in the blood of the Lamb and have been sealed by their baptism to go through all seasons in life. God does not hold his people in suspense but will always reveal to them their future; either in dreams and in real words of comfort, communion and prophecy.

The two pronged question raised by the elder to John is also the question for the present faith community: “Who are those robed in white, and where have they come from?” First, the elder informs John about the nature of the crowd as those who have come out of “the great ordeal,” this is the ordeal of tribulation and trial that God’s people go through. While John does not tell us that Jesus is part of the ordeal, interpreters must not miss the point that the Lamb was the harbinger of the ordeal, which the New Testament refers to as the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus. Paul calls it the ‘Christ-event,’ and this event happens to all God’s people. Jesus Christ is the heroic figure that fought opposition and God’s people are called to be heroic in all challenges of life. In the penultimate period as we wait for God’s coming, the community of faith is called upon to face terrorism, HIV/AIDS, hunger, wars, and any form evil with enduring faith as Jesus Christ did. The metaphor of being clothed is perhaps symbolic of the spiritual state of those who hold on to their faith in the midst of life’s chaos. It is probably a symbolic clothing of people by the Holy Spirit, as well as the blood of Jesus upon those who are captive to forces of evil and sin and are made worthy to stand before the throe of God (7:15), because of their endurance.

In conclusion, there are probably faith lessons we can learn in this chapter. First, the imagery of washing robes in the Lamb’s blood is symbolic aligning our life with the cause of Jesus Christ. When we follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, we become participants in his blood and we continue to worship before God’s throne in all we do and say (7:15). Verse 16 is of theological significance in that those who follow in the Lamb’s way are given the four promises by God who also sheltered or tabernacle the children of Israel when they passed through their own ordeal (Exodus 40:34-35; Isaiah 49:10). The crucial lesson to be learned in Revelation and in chapter 7 in particular is that God does not inflict pain on his people but he is compassionate and tender to all who believe and follow in the steps of the Lamb. Thus, Christians are called not to be comfortable in the distorted standard values of the contemporary empire but to always focus their joy on the coming heaven mentioned in Revelation 21 – 22.

Prayer: God help us not to settle into the values of our global  contemporary empire and focus our eyes on the heavenly joys. Amen.



1 Ian Boxall, The Revelation of Saint John: Black’s New Testament Commentaries (Peabody, M.A: Hendrickson, 2006), 121.

2 Eugene M. Boring, Revelation. Interpretation: A Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox, 1988), 131.

3 See Baulkham, Theology of the Book of Revelation, 77