Commentary on John 10:1-10
“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” These words of Jesus are familiar to us.
Following on the heels of a warning that “the thief comes to steal and destroy,” these words offer a welcome comfort when we find ourselves harmed by the systems of the world.
Sometimes when we read a familiar text like this one, we read it with certain expectations—to be encouraged or to find hope. And that’s a good thing! But for texts like these, it can be worthwhile to step back and consider a new approach so that our reading can be meaningful for the current moment.
One way to get a fresh perspective is to consider what we are bringing with us to the text. Hermeneutics is the field of study that reflects on these and other factors in the interpretive process. A reader taking on a particular hermeneutical approach intentionally brings certain questions or issues with them when they engage a text.1 For the Good Shepherd Discourse, a fruitful hermeneutical approach might be a sociocultural reading that pays special attention to power dynamics in the text and to “the relationships between that text and other social and cultural realities” like gender, race, or colonialism.2 Postcolonial criticism is one type of sociocultural approach that pays attention to the power dynamics produced by and at work in colonization. When applied to a text from the era of the Roman Empire, such a reading notices how the text interacts with the social and cultural realities of imperial life.3
A Good Shepherd, better than Caesar
Warren Carter’s work on this passage shows that postcolonial criticism produces an insightful and challenging reading of this text. The Greek and Roman political tradition presents kings and emperors as “good shepherds” who foster a life marked by security and abundance for the empire’s subjects.4 Throughout his story, John presents Jesus as an opponent to imperial rule, so much so that he is killed for his opposition to Caesar (John 19:12, 15).
Carter shows that the description of Jesus mirrors the role of the emperor as a ruler who keeps secure borders, a warrior who saves the people from attack or economic harm, and a benefactor who offers provision and even abundance (John 10:3, 9).5 In a Roman world where 70-80 percent of the population was food insecure, protection from theft and the image of a green pasture was a poignant promise.6
Jesus’ claim to be the ultimate good shepherd who brings abundant life is further supported by his actions of healing and providing wine and bread. The presentation of Jesus offers a critique of the Roman Empire, which claimed (as reported in the writings of Philo, Josephus, Tacitus, and others) to bring wholeness and wellbeing to society, when its structures actually brought sickness and poverty to most of its subjects.7
The shepherd, the gate, and the Lamb of God
While John draws upon imperial imagery to describe Jesus’ role, the power dynamics at play are reversed. Rather than a military warrior, amassing power through violence, Jesus absorbs the violence of the Empire.8 The claim to be the good shepherd mirrors one of the key expectations for a “noble” death, fitting of a hero in Greek literature—that is was done willingly and for the benefit of others. As he explains just after this passage, Jesus’ life and death are for the benefit of the sheep who follow him (10:10-11), and he lays his life down of his own accord (10:18).
In addition to presenting Jesus as the noble shepherd who gives his own life for the benefit of the sheep (10:10-11), and the ruler who serves as the gateway to abundance (10:9), John also presents Jesus as the Lamb of God. All three of these images stand in stark contrast to Rome, and expose the Empire’s reliance on violence the false promises of health and safety. In John, the timing of Jesus’ death coincides with the Paschal sacrifice at the temple, a symbolic a remembrance of God freeing the Israelite people from slavery in Egypt. Here too, we see the characterization of Jesus coinciding with overthrowing oppressive powers, even in death. The characterization of Jesus as shepherd, gate, and lamb proclaims the good news that God is on the side of the oppressed and that God will ultimately bring abundant life.
A complex challenge for our current context
Carter reminds us that just like the mixed metaphor of shepherd, gate, and lamb, the characterization of Jesus is complex. It draws upon imagery from the Empire, but it also resists it. But in some ways, it reinscribes it, claiming that Jesus is even more powerful that the ruler of the Roman Empire, and falling into the imperial pattern of wielding power to overthrow or control.9
As Jesus delivers this discourse, he tells the hearers that he is using a figure of speech. The narrator interjects that “they did not understand what he was saying to them” (1:6). Perhaps the hearers of Jesus’ Good Shepherd discourse didn’t understand what he was saying because the metaphor was messy. Or perhaps they were too embedded in the systems of the Empire to even see the other way to which Jesus was pointing. A way where violence is not used to control. A way of space for “other sheep,” a way for distribution of resources.
One reason we read this text alongside the imagery of Empire, was to get a new vantage point, so that we don’t miss an important word for us today. We should take care not to be comforted by this passage too quickly. While it certainly speaks to those parts of our lives where we might be disadvantaged or ostracized, we must open our imaginations to the more uncomfortable implications of this text for our current context.
It is easy to critique the Roman Empire of the ancient world, but there are far too many similarities to our current systems to ignore the message for our own sociopolitical context.
Let us be open to noticing new things about ourselves as we read this text:
- Where do we participate in systems that oppress others?
- Where do we grapple and grasp for power?
- Where are we challenging the systems even when it will cost us something?
- Are we following the voice of the Good Shepherd who calls us to critique these systems and follow the path to abundant life?
Alicia D. Myers and Lindsey S. Jodrey, “Come and Read: Hermeneutics and Interpretive Perspectives in the Gospel of John,” in Come and Read: Interpretive Approaches to the Gospel of John, ed. Alicia Myers and Lindsey S. Jodrey (Lanham, MD: Fortress Academic, 2020), 6.
Myers and Jodrey, 10.
Myers and Jodrey, 12.
Warren Carter, “Jesus the Good Shepherd: John 10 as Political Rhetoric,” in Come and Read: Interpretive Approaches to the Gospel of John, ed. Alicia Myers and Lindsey S. Jodrey (Lanham, MD: Fortress Academic, 2020), 97.
May 3, 2020