Exegetical Exercise

Image Christ the good shepherd

The Good Shepherd in mural form

The Uniform Series text for Sunday, April 30 is John 10:1-15. This is the text (NRSV):

“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. (2) The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. (3) The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. (4) When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. (5) They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” (6) Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.

(7)So Again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. (8) All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. (9) I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. (10) The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

(11)”I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. (12) The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away – and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. (13) The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. (14) I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, (15) just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. …”

Here are my notes:

My first reaction to sheep and shepherd texts is to roll my eyes, remember every sermon I have ever heard and every commentary I have ever read about what we know about sheep and shepherds in the ancient world, how the shepherd lies down in the opening of the sheep pen and acts as the gate for the sheep, how sheep really do know the shepherd’s voice, and on and on and on. You would think Christians actually know all about sheep. What I mainly know personally is that there’s a sheep category in 4-H, and I was never in 4-H.

My mom’s, and I think a lot of people’s, favorite saying of Jesus, “I came that they might have life, and that more abundantly,” is in this text. I’m now wondering just how much this context conditions this notion of abundant life.

Background texts: Psalm 23 – God is the shepherd, and the sheep is doing great – God could probably rightly say “I am the good shepherd,” as the Psalmist clearly agrees; Isaiah 40:10-11 – God again, who will “feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep”; Jeremiah 23:1-6 – leaders of Israel, kings, but probably also priests, are acting as bad shepherds, destroying the scattering the flock, so God is going to gather the flock together, and raise up better shepherds, and everything will be good; Ezekiel 34, the whole chapter – the shepherds of Israel have been eating the sheep instead of feeding them and letting them be eaten up by wild animals, so the shepherds are in trouble now, God is going to seek out and rescue the flock, feed them, be the shepherd, heal the sick, bind up the injured, etc. – and [OK, I admit I like this part] deal with the goats and fat sheep that butt the other sheep away from feeding troughs and trample the watering holes. Then, v. 23, in a messianic turn, God will set up one shepherd, “my servant David,” will banish wild animals from the land, provide amply for the people (in some detail); Zechariah 11:4-17 the prophet is asked to be the shepherd of a flock doomed for slaughter, there’s a reference to being valued at 30 shekels of silver, and this flock is facing only exploitation. So Jesus’ discourse continues this discourse scriptural discourse on shepherds, and God’s activity either as a shepherd or as someone who raises up shepherds, the discussion of what good and bad shepherds do, the fate of the sheep, etc. – with strongly implicit messianic significance.

What is the dramatic setting of this text? It immediately follows chapter 9, the long story about the healing of the man born blind. It seems to be a continuation of Jesus’ conversation with the man, and with some Pharisees who have overheard something he has said to the man; the man has asked Jesus about the identity of the “Son of Man,” and Jesus directly claims to be that figure; the content of that little exchange suggests that those who worship Jesus are those who see, those who don’t are blind; the transition to the discussion about sheep is going to put the metaphorical stress on hearing.

Assuming this first part of ch. 10 is a continuation of the conversation in ch. 9 (in a way, the messianic fulfillment of that narrative), then is Jesus implying that the Pharisees have not “entered the sheepfold by the gate”? Because “Jesus used this figure of speech with them …” and “them” may be the Pharisees. Or is he simply talking about others, who might be people making messianic claims? The full discourse goes beyond the boundaries of the text for Sunday, and winds up with a conversation about Jesus (10:19-21) in which some think he’s mad and others say “Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?” – which is maybe additional evidence that this part of ch. 10 is the aftermath of the story about healing the blind man in ch. 9. And otherwise, who is Jesus talking to?? But even if it is a continuation of the story in ch. 9, who is Jesus talking to? Those Pharisees in ch. 9 just happened to be near Jesus when he was talking to the man born blind. So maybe the primary audience is the man born blind who now has sight. But other people are around or nearby, overhearing. (See 10:19-21) All of which – this is John – might be metaphorical. Maybe we [current readers] are the man born blind, or the over-hearers.

The text divides into two parts according to “person” language. Verses 1-5 are presented as a kind of general illustration, something like a parable, in which the subjects are in third person. Verse 7 begins first person language, where Jesus identifies with the gate, and the shepherd.

In the paradigmatic illustration, there’s the proper way to enter the sheepfold, used by the shepherd – by the gate, with the permission/assistance of the gatekeeper – and the improper way used by thieves and bandits; the shepherd calls and leads a flock that belongs to him, and they know each other – “the sheep know his voice.” So there are sheep, and on one side of them there are thieves, bandits, and strangers, and on another side there are shepherd and gatekeeper.

When Jesus shifts to first person, he identifies first with the gate, and then with the shepherd. As the gate (vv 7-10), the issue is entrance, but it seems here sheep rather than shepherds are entering; implied sheep will come in and go out and find pasture and be saved and have life and have it abundantly. (Back in v. 1-3 the gate-enterer was a shepherd … so there is some conflation … entering by the shepherd who enters by the gate may be implied … unless we are back to the historical criticism that says the shepherd used to lie down as the gate to guard the flock etc. …)

Where Jesus identifies with the shepherd (vv. 11-18), he introduces the contrast category of the “hired hand” who doesn’t care for the sheep and runs away when a wolf comes. The good shepherd, on the other hand, lays down his life for the sheep (twice – v. 11, v. 15 – forming something of an inclusio, because v. 16 shifts over to a discussion of the composition of the flock, so we could say this little section on the good shepherd begins and ends with the good shepherd laying down his life for the sheep).

The good shepherd lays down his life, owns the sheep, knows his own and they know him, and implicitly – by contrast to the hired hand – cares for the sheep, doesn’t run away, and doesn’t allow them to be scattered and snatched.

The “life” that the good shepherd lays down is a psyche, not a zoe. So, elsewhere in some other context, that “life” might be a “soul” or even a “mind.” This is the same life that a man lays down for his friends in John 15:13.

So there are three categories of threats to the sheep – four, if you count the wolf, but three categories of human threats: thieves and bandits, who don’t come in by the gate, but come in another way, to steal and destroy; hired hands, who don’t care for the sheep, and allow them to be scattered and snatched when danger arises; strangers, who don’t know the sheep and who the sheep don’t know and don’t follow. These categories can presumably overlap; a hired hand probably wouldn’t be a stranger, necessarily; a thief and a bandit probably would, thought they might not be, either; a stranger wouldn’t necessarily be a thief or a bandit, just someone the sheep wouldn’t listen to.

With this calling and voice, is there any resonance with the calling of wisdom vs. the calling of the “strange woman” in the early chapters of Proverbs? Just a thought.

But what is the point of this speech? What is the point of this speech here? Is it (in its context) a strong messianic claim? Picking up the shepherd language to echo messianic texts; identifying with the good shepherd in contrast to bad shepherds; bringing in God and God’s/Father’s knowledge and approval? Does this help explain why in John 10:24-30 there’s a direct question about whether Jesus is the Messiah, and Jesus reprises the language of shepherd and sheep, and says “I have told you, and you do not believe.” So, a speech in code, but when de-coded (assuming all the talk about shepherds and sheep is code for messianic claims – see the cf’tive texts) a very direct assertion of Jesus’ status as messiah – but also, of the fate of the messiah (laying down one’s life).

If so, it just suggests that the point of John 10:1-15 is only established in a larger narrative context, of at least a couple of chapters.

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About HAT

Heather Thiessen (HAT) is a happily married 60-ish, Bible-reading, Presbyterian Church Sunday School teaching and choir singing, small fuel efficient car driving, still pretty much 2nd wave feminist and generally out lesbian Hoosier mom. (There are no monochrome states.) From time to time she teaches religious studies to students at a small liberal arts college in Louisville, Kentucky.
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