Commentary on John 10:1-10
John 10 opens with Jesus saying the words, “Very truly, I tell you.” These words occur in the Gospel of John as a rhetorical device to alert the readers that the words which Jesus is about to utter are significant. Continuing his thoughts, Jesus begins to teach his disciples about how one entering a sheepfold by climbing or entering another way is a thief or a bandit. Jesus is speaking metaphorical language.
At verse 6, the gospel writer states that Jesus uses paroimia which is a Greek term that translates into “figure of speech.” However, I would highlight the notion of a “veiled saying” or “lofty idea” may be a more appropriate translation. In some lexica, authors highlight that the use of paroimia signifies “lofty ideas” are concealed, veiled sayings that occur often in John’s Gospel. Comparing such language to parables in the synoptic Gospels, many Johannine scholars then equate paroimia with parables in the Synoptics. I do not believe that such a comparison is necessary because it does not read John’s Gospel as its own entity before comparing it to the Synoptics.
While I am not totally against the comparison to the Synoptics, I do not believe such a comparison may be warranted. As I read the Gospel of John, I argue that the greatest connections may occur between John’s Gospels and the Wisdom literature. Wisdom literature is prominent from the beginning of John’s Gospel. For example, in Sirach 39:3, one of the activities of the scribe is to preserve the sayings of the famous and penetrate the subtleties of parables. The word “sayings” is the translation for paroimia, while “parables” is its own word later in the verse. There seems to be something slightly different in the Wisdom traditions that indicates interpreters should think about paroimia in a different and distinct way.
What are the purposes of “veiled sayings” or “lofty ideas?” Lofty carries the significance of elevation. Elevated ideas demand that a reader think deeply about the metaphors and the variety of ways in which they can be applied. In the past, the metaphors found in John 10 have been superficial. For example, some interpretations of the strange voices in verse 5 and of the “thieves and bandits” in verse 8 have been interpreted to signify the Jewish religious leaders in Jesus’ time only. The problem with this interpretation is that if interpreters only see “thieves and bandits” as the Jewish religious leaders, anti-Semitic thought can creep into the interpretations. Such ideas would lead to supersessionist readings of scripture that believe Christianity supersedes Judaism. Such belief has led in the past to the attempted extermination of the Jewish people which ended with the murder of nearly 6 million Jewish people during the Shoah which began in 1933 and ended in 1945 at the conclusion of World War II.1
However, scholars such as Warren Carter ponder what it looks like to think of the shepherds as an image for political leadership. The idea of political leadership definitely occurs in Ezekiel 34, the text which the Johannine author seems to reference regarding shepherds. If Jesus is the “good shepherd,” could an implicit reading occur of “bad shepherds?”2 In thinking about what the Gospel writer is leading readers to in John 10:11 and 14, I note that in Greco-Roman literature, writers such as Homer, Plato, and Aristotle depict political rulers as shepherds. Specifically, in The Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle (circa 382-322 BCE) describes the king as a “benefactor of his people, inasmuch as he devotes his whole talents to their welfare, and tends them as a shepherd does his sheep.” While literal shepherds were not recipients of high esteem in Greco-Roman culture, high esteem was given to political figures (as metaphorical shepherds) while actual, literal shepherds were described as “the laziest … who lead an idle life, and get their subsistence without trouble from tame animals; their flocks wandering from place to place in search of pasture, they are compelled to follow them, cultivating a sort of living farm” (Aristotle, Politics).
My point is that readers cannot only see Jewish leaders as “thieves and bandits” within the oppressive system in which Jesus was crucified. Readers must also recognize that connecting interpretation to the Greco-Roman political leaders is important so that Jerusalem’s leaders are not the only ones interpreted as problematic. Pondering the loftiness of Jesus’ words can expand that interpretation to also include Roman leaders, who were actually lords over the Jewish leaders at the time of Jesus’ ministry.
Another lofty idea may come from thinking deeply about our Western concept of “eternal life.” Oftentimes in our church settings, we equate having abundant life to a life that can only occur in the hereafter. However, it is imperative to expand that interpretation to include what abundant life would look like in Jesus’ time. In order for expansion to occur, we have to remember that both Roman and Jewish leaders are presiding over the world. Further, both are endangering the immediate lives of Jesus and his followers through food shortage, decreased economic security, and diminished healthy opportunities. Accordingly, it would not be far-fetched to actually decrease the superfluous and lofty ideal of life after death to contemplate life in its immediacy. In comparing himself to the gate, Jesus provides protection and relationship to the sheep of the sheepfold. Abundant life is not just for eternal life but may also mean life in the present age. For this reason, I appreciate Warren Carter’s translation of “eternal life” into “life of the age.” I think that our current task in today’s contemporary society is to blend the ideas of living towards eternal life while working to be part of Jesus’ sheepfold. As a part of the sheepfold, Jesus provides a present “life of the age” to those who are denied life-giving opportunities in today’s society.
Every person has to make a choice. Do we uphold an idea of “eternal life” that prepares Jesus followers for a life in the hereafter with no concern for what life in the present age looks like? Or do we decide to inhabit this world and hope beyond hope that a “life of the age” is present for all of those who follow Jesus? The choice is ours.
- As an aside and because I do not have space to address the subject, I would highlight that more than 2,000 Black Germans were killed in the Shoah as well. In other writings, I highlight how anti-Semitic thought is often traced to White supremacy.
- While I understand that Jesus does not specifically call himself the “good shepherd” in our particular pericope, he does use this language immediately following in John 10:11 and 10:14.