Narrative models of reading scripture encourage interpreters to consider the meaning of a text (its cognitive content) and the “action” or “effect” of the text.
Texts not only mean something, they do something. Many of us have been formed in the “cognitive” tradition of knowledge but today’s text may frustrate this more familiar approach. It may convey cognitive content, but even more it makes one reflect or grow still, almost, with the contemplation of the image of Christ as the good shepherd. Its effect is iconological.
Scholars commonly note the solemn character of the Johannine discourses, of which this text is one example. These discourses are marked off with the words, “Very truly I say, unto you…” Known as the “double-amen”, it is unique to John. Frequently, the narrator uses it to set apart and underline the importance of the discourses themselves. Raymond Brown notes the “quasi-poetic” quality of Jesus’ discourses, something he attempts to capture in his translation for the Anchor Bible commentary.1
If we still used the red font editions of the King James Bible (in which Jesus’ words were printed in red font) you would see rivers of nearly uninterrupted red ink flowing up and down the page. Like the Book of Psalms, Johannine discourses invite us to experience the text, or dwell in its images, or be immersed in the “red font” river that makes glad the city of God. There may be explanation, but it will be subordinate and derivative to the experience of the good shepherd imagery.
I would liken it to the experience we have when entering a museum. We walk up wide, spacious stairs to the entry. This is not a crowded sidewalk or a congested escalator. The space commands a different, more capacious spirit. Perhaps our path is flanked by marble pillars. Statues offer dramatic slices of life, captured in stone, surrounded by what were, at one time, horizons of historical urgency. We may glimpse that urgency, but not the particular horizon that inspired the pose.
Finally, we enter the lobby of the museum. The space falls away, into an invitation to linger, to steep in collections of moral and artistic vision. Inside the individual collections, you see long, richly upholstered benches which invite you to sit down, to gaze at paintings. If people talk, it is in a low murmur, as if the visual drama were a sacred discourse, too majestic to interrupt.
Perhaps our text functions this way, as an iconic expression of Christ, which cultivates recognition, yet without a reduction of mystery.
As text, it includes three parts. The first part of the text could be viewed as a Johannine “parable” or an extended proverb (John 10:1-5). Jesus speaks in this text much like he would speak in the Synoptic Gospels: “The rule of God is like…” Unlike many of the parables, however, John’s parable begins with the antithesis, the opposite of the good shepherd.
In your notebook, you might want to ponder this antithesis: do we experience this crisis of trust today? What is the effect of that betrayal of trust collectively and personally?
Jesus shifts to thesis, which is the greater burden of his discourse. He goes on to describe the attributes of the good shepherd and the gate keeper. Underline the verbs associated with the good shepherd/gate keeper type: enters by the gate, opens the gate, hears, calls by name, brings out, goes ahead, knows, and is known (John 10:3-5).
A brief interruption occurs before Jesus resumes his monologue in John 10:7: “…But they did not understand what he was saying to them” (6b). The narrator implies that Jesus will now “explain” what he just said, but it strikes me as an interruption to the discourse proper because Jesus doesn’t really explain this “figure of speech” (New Revised Standard Version).
For example, in Matthew, we get Jesus’ parable of the sower in 13:1-9. The disciples ask, “What does it mean?” In response, Jesus allegorizes the parable in verses 18-23, offering this allegory as an “explanation” of this figure of speech. By contrast, John gives an image of mutual responsibility and recognition, namely the identity of the good shepherd who is speaking to them at that very moment: “I am the gate” (John 10:7, 9); and “I am the good shepherd” (11,14).
The final part of this text leaves the image of the shepherd/gate keeper. Perhaps the images can only sustain a part of the christological burden of the text. Instead of overloading the image, Jesus speaks of himself as the one who lays down his life for the sheep and takes it up again — which is clearly beyond the scope of even a good shepherd!
Thinking in a more pastoral direction, perhaps this text helps us live in today’s fraught world (with nearly hourly accounts of faithless shepherds of the political, religious, celebrity types) with the courage of faithful memory.
Do you remember National Public Radio (NPR) tweeting The Declaration of Independence in the summer of 2017? They tweeted this sacred document in 113 consecutive posts of 140-character increments in observance of the Fourth of July. People accused NPR of spreading propaganda. They published The Declaration of Independence! But many don’t know (recognize) our deep texts — and many view them as threats (or regard them with antipathy).2
These, as you recall, were among the main points of contention between Jesus and his adversaries. John wants us to recognize the voice of the good shepherd. We “recognize” the iconography of bread, wine, light, vine, and branches. These signify the faithfulness and life-giving ways and practices of the good shepherd.
What if, in some way, these iconic images, located in Jesus’ teaching and narrative, were antidotes to a loss of memory in our contemporary context? What if they were like pastures of theological imagination, for congregational nurture and formation? We may know that wolves and predators exist, and that there are “false” shepherds, but we may also need, as people of faith, to gather into the deep security of God’s fold.
Renewing and deepening that empathetic relationship between congregation and Christ seems to be the purpose of John’s gospel. Maybe it’s time for a trip to the museum? I will admit that preaching a “museum” experience may prove difficult and, strictly speaking, you don’t want to preach a museum, certainly not as a cul-de-sac. Nevertheless, John does seem to suggests this analogy (and its limits) for his own account of Jesus: “…There are also many other things Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25).
Your son came, and like a good shepherd, gave his life for your sheep. Receive our humble gratitude for this act of sacrifice and courage. Amen.
Forgive our sins as we forgive ELW 605, H82 674 Abide with me ELW 629, H82 662, UMH 700, NCH 99
Kyrie eleison from Messa a quattro voci, Claudio Monteverdi