Week of Sunday April 17 - Easter 4
Gospel: John 10:22-30
At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, 23and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. 24So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly. 25Jesus answered, ‘I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; 26but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. 27My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. 30The Father and I are one.’
I've stolen an image from my daughter's latest solo exhibition.
Central to Grotto— reminiscent of a death mask— was a face cast in wax. You can't adequately photograph such works. The photo is technically superior to any I could manage, but does not remotely capture the small enclosing room, the grotto, which one had to enter to view the body of art. Or the bright light consumed by the background, and much less again, the oppressive silence and heat of the place. To see anything, we had to enter into the work and allow ourselves to be discomforted and unsettled.
We live in an age of tabloid media. Things are short, plain, simple. Sound bites and surface. John's gospel, and Deb's Grotto, are long form media. They are panoramic, allusive, deep, complicated— although often posing very clear questions: in John, he is asking us, "Are you in the dark— the night, or do you stand in the light?" And in this week's reading, "Is it winter for you?" "And are you among my sheep?"
The tabloid is rarely as simple as it pretends, but it makes our decisions for us, telling us what it has decided we need to know, what to believe, what's important. But the gospel shows us the signs of life, and begs us to decide for ourselves.
To find what is important, and to decide where we stand, and in what we will trust— that's the Greek word we translate as believe— we have to find a way to enter into the work. And then the simple choices, light and dark, trust/belief, become complex, disturbing, challenging and life giving, because, seeing more deeply, we see more clearly.
Entering into John's art is to see an almost comic book, or graphic novel, simplicity in the presentation of symbols; light/dark, seeing/blind, resurrection/violence... And yet to be offered a place that is confronting, and even oppressive in its strangeness, so that our imagination might be cracked open, and we are able to be taken to another place of imagining what life is about.
The part of John which contains our text revolves around the multifaceted image and symbol of the sheep. It's political, and it's psychological and spiritual. John Petty says,
Psychologically, "sheep" refers to that aspect of a person that instinctively is able to hear the shepherd's voice, and separate the truth from falsehood. The early church father, Origen, said that sheep represent our irrational and instinctual nature. This aspect of our psyche needs guidance, but also has the ability to separate the "true shepherd" from the false one.
Bill Loader touches on the same issue of instinct and intuition:
Those words and deeds in John’s gospel are not compelling argument. They are presentation and invitation, implying a huge claim: that here is the Son offering life from the Father. The Son is giving the sheep that life, the life he lived.
John has recognised that life is not finally able to be defined and philosophically "solved." We are in the middle of it; we cannot stand apart from it and define it. In the end, for all our analysis, we can only commit, only believe, only trust. Or stay outside, on the edges, either afraid of what we sense might be in the unknown spaces which call us. We are often tempted to pretend that we understand life and stay safe in the shallows. Last week I said,
Those who dive deeply into life will see the truth here. To be free, we have to embrace something— commit to it. And to be true to it, we must let it guide us and bind us.
What we join, what we become part of— who we follow— is the critical life choice. Not to follow, to do our own thing— which sounds very modern— is most often to be adrift in the unenlightened dark, thinking we thing we are being profound, and an individual, whilst those with clearer vision see us effortlessly pushed and pulled by forces invisible to us.
The same applies this week. In John's universe, we have to commit; we see, or we are blind.
The image of sheep and shepherd is also political. In this image, the shepherds are the leadership of the people. In Ezekiel 34, the leadership is judged harshly— "I am against the shepherds," and John Chapter 10 presents, in contrast, a good shepherd.
To be among the sheep is not to believe some religious mumbo jumbo, or to believe the right formulae. It is to ask what Jesus' life shows us about living, and to follow that: "My sheep hear my voice… and they follow me."
How can we hear beyond the history of interpreting this text as exclusive and damning? After all, the words say, "… you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; 26but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep…" To enter in, means to commit, first of all, to the discipline of letting the text speak to us. We look at the culture, and at the context of the reading within the gospel.
As with any work of art, we need to understand the cultural context.
In this story, we are in the Temple; we are in God's place.
We are in a time of renewal because it is the Festival of Dedication, when the renewal and rededication of the temple, after a terrible period of tyranny and oppression by the Seleucids, was remembered. That was a time, however, when there had also been Jewish collusion with the Greek overlords. So there are bitter memories of collaborators or quislings. Some may have wondered, in Jesus' time, if things were much different than in the time of the Maccabees. (See eg Nancy Rockwell)
But despite being the Feast of Dedication, it was winter. John was not talking about the incidental facts of the calendar. He was making a political, moral, spiritual brushstroke. It was winter, not spring. There is a chill in the air. It is cold. Why?
Jesus, about whom there has been constant speculation that he might be the Messiah, is walking in the temple. But not just anywhere in the temple. He is in the Portico of Solomon. This is part of the old temple which had survived from the times of Solomon. It had not been renewed by Herod.
… some made it a point to worship in these remnants, rather than in the Great Temple itself, because of their intense dislike of the Herod dynasty, which had been placed in power by Caesar about fifty years before. The Great Temple priesthood worked hand in glove with the Herods, serving their interests with prayers, public honor, and by turning a blind eye to their greed and corruption.
There is more. The Portico of Solomon was also the place where the kings passed judgement. It was here that justice was done. It was also called the “Porch of Judgment.” John is asking us, "Do you see?"
And then there is what the NRSV, with many other translations, calls "eternal life." It strikes me as one of those traditional translations which hides more than it reveals, but which no one is game to change.
"God so loved the world," reads the famous text in the King James Version of John 3:16, "that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life." There we are, think average Christian readers. This is the biblical promise of a timeless heavenly bliss.
But it isn't. In the many places where the phrase zoe aionios appears in the gospels, and in Paul's letters for that matter, it refers to one aspect of an ancient Jewish belief about how time was divided up. In this viewpoint, there were two "aions" (we sometimes use the word "eon" in that sense): the "Present age," ha-olam hazeh in Hebrew, and the "age to come," ha-olam ha-ba. The "age to come," many ancient Jews believed, would arrive one day to bring God's justice, peace, and healing to the world as it groaned and toiled within the "present age." You can see Paul, for instance, referring to this idea in Galatians 1:4, where he speaks of Jesus giving himself for our sins "to rescue us from the present evil age." In other words, Jesus has inaugurated, ushered in, the “age to come." But there is no sense that this "age to come" is "eternal" in the sense of being outside space, time, and matter. Far from it. The ancient Jews were creational monotheists. For them, God's great future purpose was not to rescue people out of the world, but to rescue the world itself, people included, from its present state of corruption and decay. (N.T. Wright How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels pp. 44-45 quoted by Paul Neuchterlein)
Our effortlessly received understanding of "eternal life" as that "timeless heavenly bliss" is tabloid. When we enter in to the cultural context, there is something much deeper, and much more confronting being said about the nature of life, and God's part in it.
The place in the text
We are able to enter further into John's grotto if we remember that this week's reading is not the only story. It is not the only work in the exhibition. It has a place in a text, and is more connected to its contexts than one of the parables. To switch metaphors for a moment, John wants us to come out at the end of the movie, perhaps not entirely conscious of all of the metaphors and devices he has used, but moved and opened to a new consciousness. We need to watch a fair amount of the movie— all of it, preferably— to know and feel the import of this one short scene. Otherwise we go back to the tabloids, reading a snippet without context.
So what are the images on the wider canvas, or bigger picture? Firstly, there are feasts.
The first feast is the Festival of Booths in Chapter 7 where, already, Jesus' brothers do not "believe" in him. The feast of Booths is the feast of harvest festival, but the
more elaborate religious significance … is that of commemorating the Exodus and the dependence of the People of Israel on the will of God (Leviticus 23:42-43) (Wikipedia).
Who and what are we trusting? In the flow of the next three chapters, we go from this feast of remembering in whom we should trust, to a feast spent in the Porch of Judgement.
Secondly, there is blindness and seeing. His brothers, who didn't see, say "Leave here and go to Judea so that your disciples also may see the works you are doing…" (John 7:2) In the feast everyone is looking for him. Where is he? Who is he? Is this Him?
It's followed by the discourse on the light of the world in Chapter 8, and who to follow, and who are true disciples. This continues in Chapter 9, with the man who had been born blind from birth and was healed and able to see. The religious authorities do everything in their power to negate this sign. Theirs is wilful blindness:
39Jesus said, ‘I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’ 40Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ 41Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.
This is the end of Chapter 9 in our bibles, but there is no break in the story here, it's not really a new chapter. "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…" follows straight on in the same conversation. Seeing and blindness, true and false, thief, good shepherd and bandit… are all part of the same panorama where we choose whether to "steal and kill and destroy," or to be part of life and having it abundantly. (John 10:10)
There is third strand in this extended narrative. We are constantly on the edges of violence. The mob is always building to a flashpoint. In Chapter 7, "the Jews were looking for an opportunity to kill him." (7:1, 19-20) He is not yet arrested, things don't quite come to a head, (7:30, 34) but the innocent victim is being chosen.
50Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus before, and who was one of them, asked, 51‘Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?’ 52They replied, ‘Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.’
In Chapter 8 they are about to stone the woman, and they seek to stone Jesus. (7:59 – 8:11, 59) In Chapter 9, they "drive out" the man who was healed of his blindness— all this is the language of the scapegoat, the driving out of the city and the stoning of the one judged to be in the wrong. It continues in Chapter 10, as they seek to stone him and arrest him. (10:31, 39)
The fourth theme in the text is death and resurrection. This includes the beginning of Chapter 8, where there is yet another threat of stoning, and where NRSV tells us, in a footnote, "The most ancient authorities lack 7.53—8.11; other authorities add the passage here or after 7.36 or after 21.25 or after Luke 21.38, with variations of text; some mark the passage as doubtful." The story of the woman caught in adultery has been inserted into the text.
The placement of this insertion— we could read the gospel without it— is masterful. For in all the confusion, on the edge of violence again, Jesus steps into the scene and rescues the woman, without violence. He removes the power of scapegoating, for he exposes her relative innocence by forcing them all to admit they too have sinned. It is a beginning of resurrection, and is followed immediately after the stories of sheep, of abundant life, of zoe aionios in Chapter 10, with the raising of Lazarus from the dead.
In all of this are the people of God, the Jews, circling around Jesus, longing and threatening, seeing yet blind, not entering in. "How long will you keep us in suspense? … tell us plainly" John tells us this translation of their question is a non-question: "I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; 26but you do not believe…" The only suspense here is created by their lack of decision.
We can read John as divisive and exclusive, as damning of Jewish people, in its constant refrain of the Jews, and slide into the sin of anti-Semitism. That's the tabloid reading, substituting a scapegoat for truth.
In a non-exclusive reading, imagining the great swirl of emotions and challenge leading up to John 10, we could hear and feel the pain of those who had somehow come to see a salvation in Jesus, who had found they could be living now in something approaching "the age to come," but whose family did not believe, and did not "belong to my sheep." The promise and comfort of "my sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me," is not only reassurance. It is always accompanied by the pain and mystery of those who cannot hear, or who have left what once enlivened them.
But in a deeper reading again, perhaps the people of God are us. Despite Jphn's pain and anger about his peoples' rejection of Jesus, they were still his people. Rather than falling into an anti-Semitic reading, we should see that John and Jesus are talking about their own people— us. We are the ones who circle around Jesus, we are the ones who question when he has already told us, we are the ones who so often do not believe.
Translation of the Greek of "How long will you keep us in suspense?" is apparently difficult. Petty says,
Frankly, none of the [common translations] appear to be very close. The Greek phrase is: eos pote ten psychen hamon aireis, which should be translated, "Until when you take away our lives?" Ray Brown notes that the use of this expression to mean "suspense" is not well attested in Greek literature and hints that the phrase should be rendered literally: "Jesus lays down his own life for those who follow him (10:11,15), (and) also provokes judgment and thus takes away the life of those who reject him (11:48)."
How much do we live with a sense of the vital importance of something just outside our seeing, of something we almost wish to choose, but which we cannot quite reason out? Do we even live with a sense of what we should do, but never quite able to commit to it?
Last week I suggested that the first person who binds our hands and takes us where we do not wish to go, (John 21:18) was Jesus himself. And that not to allow this binding, "[n]ot to follow, to do our own thing— which sounds very modern— is most often to be adrift in the unenlightened dark, thinking we thing we are being profound, and an individual, whilst those with clearer vision see us effortlessly pushed and pulled by forces invisible to us." This drifting may "take away our lives." No one in John who rejects Jesus comes out well. They are always in the grip of the mob and its violence.
In Grotto we viewers were confronted with a face that was cast from living flesh, very much alive. It is an exact replica of my daughter, yet at first I did not even recognise it was her face! Never did I see something that was so accurate a copy and was yet so dead. It hung under stark light, surrounded by symbols of life and preservation, and it was dead.
Who are we!? Do we live in a present age, or trusting in something more? What is life? What does it mean to live? People kept drifting back to the room, circling.
Then, this week, I listened to the grief of a friend.
Why her? Why not me? What chooses these things? What made the difference between me choosing life and she, apparently, choosing a living death? What does this impossible questioning of me by life mean?
Between us we had no answers to her questions. Yet in her agonised questioning— because of her questioning, this woman is standing in abundant life. She has entered in— in this case, in to great pain. She is daring to face Mystery and to question Mystery. And it shows in her gentleness. She has refused the violence of easy answers.
We of the church are allergic to the notion of judgement, and with good reason, given our history of condemnation. Yet there is something about the shape of reality which means that if we will not face it, we are judged. Something of life is taken away from us. This is what they recognised when they circled Jesus, longing yet threatening. He is not God. He does not judge us. But he is one with God— the father and I are one— in that he provokes in us the recognition that unless we enter in… unless we face the hard questions about the nature of life and death, unless we enter the depths of our lives seeking what is true, then we have lost perhaps more than we know.
Come to the text this week not for answers. Come for questions. Enter in, and leave as a different person.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
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