Fourth Sunday of Easter (Year B)

In a Gospel text that uses pastoral images of sheep and shepherd, the contemporary preacher is challenged to connect rural metaphor with listeners who remain at several removes from the animating metaphors of this work.

May 3, 2009

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Commentary on John 10:11-18

In a Gospel text that uses pastoral images of sheep and shepherd, the contemporary preacher is challenged to connect rural metaphor with listeners who remain at several removes from the animating metaphors of this work.

What then might be useful in proclaiming this passage?

First, the preacher approaches this text mindful of what it might yield within the overall context of the Sundays of Easter.

In other words, how does this passage of shepherd and sheep connect with the post-resurrection reality of the Christ who intersects our lives across time and space? What difference does the empty tomb make to preaching this passage?

This passage primarily describes the attributes of a model shepherd. While much can be made of the historical links to Old Testament images of the shepherd, no Old Testament texts characterize the shepherd as one who will sacrifice himself for the flock to the point of death.

That being the case, this text is an image already tested by the death and resurrection of the Christ. The reality of death has been withstood and conquered by the shepherd. Verses 12 and 13 take pains to make clear the test of the true shepherd is proven by comparison against those who do not care for the sheep — to the point of death.

The affirmation of Jesus as the model shepherd in verse 11 is repeated again in verse 14 with an emphasis following on the mutual reciprocity of recognition.

Just as Jesus knows God and God Jesus, the same genuine knowledge of Jesus is found in those who recognize that basic relationship. To know God is to know Jesus, and that is the mark of the flock which recognizes the shepherd as their own. The passage returns to the same theme in more elaborate form in verses 16-18 when Jesus asserts that his willingness to die for the flock stems from the love between him and God.

What elements in this passage might the proclaimer use to emphasize the presence, care and perpetuity of this shepherd, one unlike all others? Two possibilities might yield some rich preaching.

One of the most fascinating realities of this text is in plain sight but rarely addressed. Jesus’ claims point to one key fact that permeates this passage: recognition of the shepherd’s voice (verse 16).

Embedded in this statement is a basic fact recognized and studied in the field of speech communication: listening. Prior to recognizing and responding to a sound, one must listen.

In their pioneering research work Listening, co-authors Wolvin and Coakley identify five basic types of listening: discriminative, comprehensive, critical, therapeutic and appreciative.1  These interrelated types start with the very basic ability of an individual to hear sounds and then move to other tiers of analysis, critique, concern, and appreciation.

If the link between Jesus and his flock is mediated by recognition of the Master’s voice, what does that mean for the kind of spiritual listening involved in responding to him?

In a culture and church which is heavily focused on word and speaking, the emphasis on listening as a prior condition and state can be overlooked. Yet, listening has a rich spiritual and personal biblical history and in the area of spiritual formation and discernment. It is the prior requirement for any type of effective speaking environment.

The Wolvin and Coakley paradigm offers some interesting possibilities for the way we hear God. (By way of linguistic caveat, listening is far more than merely hearing, it is responding to what is heard). So, what does the herd hear?!

Certainly the ability to recognize the shepherd’s voice at all is what preaching the Gospel is about. We daringly claim to speak for God, by our voice to bring the Voice which calls us to life, salvation, new hope, and safety. It is a voice which the Church has had the wisdom to recognize must be spoken repeatedly without cessation to all who recognize it and to those who are unfamiliar with it. It is that same shepherd’s voice that prompts Christians to say to one another, “We have heard the Lord!”

Martin Luther’s views on the Word and speaking pre-dated the corresponding listening insights of Wolvin and Coakley by some centuries. But in his Smalcald Articles, he indirectly presumes that the effective functioning of the means of grace is mediated by the ear!

In other words, without the prior attitude of listening to the Lord’s voice through preaching, the sacraments, the words of forgiveness, and the church itself, our relationship to the shepherd would be rendered meaningless.

Verse 16 also raises significant issues related to who hears and recognizes the shepherd’s voice. In a global environment of vigorous cross cultural, multi-cultural and inter-faith discussions, what is the meaning of Jesus’ words that “other sheep will hear my voice?” From a biblical-historical perspective, debates focused on the Jews and the Gentiles.

For today what does it mean to sound the shepherd’s voice within hearing distance of those who do not know it or even repudiate it? Debates within our own culture sharpen the focus on verse 16. Should a Christian preacher speak at the president’ inauguration? Should religious holidays be cancelled so as not to offend the avowedly non-religious?

Jesus’ statement in verse 16 prompts as much thoughtful discussion as it did in centuries past. This fact returns the preacher to the fact that this text is preached as part of the Easter season. If God in the risen Christ speaks even yet, in what global, even cosmic ways do we listen to that voice?

1Andrew Wolvin and Carolynn Gwynn Coakley, Listening, 5th edition (McGraw-Hill, Columbus, OH, 1995).