Last revised: April 26, 2018
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4TH SUNDAY OF EASTER — YEAR B
RCL: Acts 4:5-12; 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18
RoCa: Acts 4:8-12; 1 John 3:1-2; John 10:11-18
Opening Comments: Elements of a New Reformation
How would Jesus converse with our modern-day shepherds? Would he be any less confrontational? Or would he even be more so — given the passage of two thousand more years and the fact that, for most of our history, we are supposedly a ‘Christian’ nation? Would it look something like Martin Luther King, Jr.‘s Poor People’s Campaign?
In 2018 I was supply preaching in SW Michigan on Sunday morning and then training on Sunday afternoon in SE Michigan for the 21st Century revival of King’s Poor People’s Campaign — led especially by Rev. Dr. William Barber (author of The Third Reconstruction: How a Moral Movement Is Overcoming the Politics of Division and Fear). An element of a New Reformation is to join such campaigns of nonviolent resistance to the Powers — named by King as Racism, Poverty, and Militarism in our time.
It is crucial, I believe, to keep in mind that John 10 follows directly out of John 9. There is no break (see more below under the Gospel Reading). The last exchange Jesus has with the Pharisees before launching into the “Good Shepherd” speech is:
Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”
Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?”
Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains. 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. . . .” (John 9:39-10:1)
No break whatsoever! This passage is a continuation of Jesus confronting the Pharisees with their blindness to their own sacred violence — their expelling of the healed blind man, which is what they will also do with Jesus himself. They believe themselves to be righteous in purging the evil. Jesus suggests to them that this is precisely their blindness, their sin. John 9 begins with the disciples’ question about the sin of the man born blind — “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” It ends with a shifting of seeing sin as the reality behind the question asked by the disciples and later pursued by the Pharisees. It is the sin of thinking we know good and evil and then acting to purge the evil — or as a justification for indifference to those we think evil. The disciples’ question is a prelude to feeling justified in ignoring a poor, blind beggar. But when we think we see good and evil, that is actually a blindness which is more difficult for Jesus to cure than that of a man born physically blind. It is a blindness that will take his lifting up on the cross and the dawning of New Creation on Easter.
In the context of the Poor People’s Campaign, I can hear the disciples question as, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born poor?” Those who are poor are the victims we still are inclined to blame in our time. Jesus teaches us that poverty is instead a social disease in need of healing. But how far along are we in the cure? How much are our politics and economics blind to the sin of thinking we see good and evil, and of finding justification for turning a blind eye to those in poverty?
In short, economic questions are relevant for this passage because of its context and Jesus’ audience. He is confronting the Pharisees, economic leaders of his day. Jesus remains the Good Shepherd for our day and age as we learn to converse with the economic leaders of our day. How can we bring the compassionate economics of Jesus to bear in ways that spur economic changes for the better in today’s global economy? I believe this to be one of the most important elements of our calling as disciples of Jesus. The world needs us to be economic change agents — to find and support those who are working with God’s Spirit toward a more compassionate economics.
1. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, p. 140. Alison begins a section on “The Skandalon Revealed” by reflecting on the crucial verse in Psalm 118:22 about the stone which the builders rejected, quoted in Acts 4:11 (and numerous other places in the New Testament, probably the most oft quoted passage from the Hebrew scriptures):
There are a series of texts in the Apostolic witness which give evidence of a particular theological understanding of Jesus’ life and death, and attribute this understanding to Jesus before his death. These are texts which show Jesus’ life and death as related to a prophecy in Isaiah 8:14: “Behold I am laying in Zion a stone that will make men stumble, a rock that will make men fall.” (1) This is juxtaposed with Isaiah 28:16: “Behold I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and he who believes in him will not be put to shame. (2) The two quotations are related in the apostolic witness to Psalm 118:22: “The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner.”The locus classicus for the combination of these texts is 1 Peter 2:6-8, where all three texts appear as interrelated. However, the nexus of ideas is much more widespread than this, and appears to have been fundamental very early on in Christian preaching as interpretative of the way in which Jesus had fulfilled the Scriptures. The way in which Paul refers to Christ crucified as a stumbling block in 1 Corinthians 1:23 is given more depth by his own explicitation of its sense in Romans 9:33. In Acts 4:11 Peter’s preaching refers to Jesus in terms of Psalm 118:22. More important is the way the text of the psalm and that of Isaiah 8:14 appear in Jesus’ own mouth in Luke 20:17-18 as his own interpretation of the parable of the murderous tenants.
The theology behind this nexus of ideas seems to be as follows: God has given Jesus into the midst of Israel which has been scandalized by him and has killed him, fulfilling the scriptures. However, for those who can overcome the scandal of his death, he is the foundation of a new edifice. Where in the original Isaian passage the happening is related in terms of God tripping up Israel, with God himself causing the scandal, the apostolic witness (made especially evident in the Lucan parable of the tenants) shows the scandal to be purely the result of human violence and self-deceit, violence and self-deceit made visible in the persecution and murder of the prophets and finally in that of the Son. For those already locked in these attitudes leading to death, then it appears scandalous that the rejected one should be the new foundation. (p. 140)
See the full section “The Skandalon Revealed.”
2. Link to a webpage on “Girard and the New Testament Use of skandalon.”
3. I wrote a brief position paper on the implications of Girard’s work for Christians in a context of pluralism concerning world religions. It concludes with Acts 4:12. Link to a brief essay on mimetic theory and world religions.
4. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2012, titled “Jesus, the Name Above All Other Names“; and in 2015, “Seeing the Immensity of What Jesus Did!”
Reflections and Questions
1. In my sermon on this passage in 1997, “Salvation Through No One Else,” I began with the following joke: “What do you get when you cross a Lutheran with a Jehovah’s Witness? A person inclined to knock on doors but not say anything.” You might be able to fill in your own denomination. There are few of the mainline denominations that are known these days for assertive evangelism. And there are many reasons offered in explanation. But the one that makes the most sense to me is that many Christians — perhaps most mainline Christians — don’t really believe in Acts 4:12 anymore. One of the most common lines I hear from parishioners is “We all worship the same God.” The way in which mimetic theory centralizes the Christian revelation, on the contrary, has been a point of revitalization for my own faith. I’m convinced it can help revitalize the church’s faith.
2. This lection contains the third of five sermons from Peter recorded in Acts, all of which express within in them a common theme: humankind kills, God raises to life. It’s verse 10 in this passage, “. . . by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead.” I pair the theme of these Acts sermons with Luke 24 in the essay on my home webpage, the section titled “The Influence of Mimetic Theory on Hermeneutics and Preaching.”
1 John 3:16-24
1. Most commentaries begin this portion of 1 John at verse 11. 1 John 3:11-15 are more crucial for mimetic theory:
For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. We must not be like Cain who was from the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. Do not be astonished, brothers and sisters, that the world hates you. We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death. All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them. (1 John 3:11-15)
This passage is reminiscent of the pivotal Girardian text, John 8:44, where the devil is the “father of lies” and a “murderer from the beginning.” See Reformation Sunday for a more complete list of resources on John 8.
2. The NRSV translation of 1 John 3:17 is, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” The original Greek is:
hos d’ an eche ton bion tou kosmou kai theore ton adelphon autou chreian echonta kai kleise ta splagchna autou ap’ autou, pos he agape tou theou menei en auto?
A more literal translation might be:
If anyone has the world’s livelihood and sees a brother in need, and shuts off his pity from him, then how does God’s love abide in him?
The crucial word for a Girardian is splagchna, “pity,” or more literally, “bowels” (one’s innermost parts). I have found (see Proper 10C) that the original use in the Greek for splagchna was to designate whatever organs where cut out during a ritual blood sacrifice. The New Testament usage derives through the Septuagint, where splagchna began to be used for a Hebrew word meaning “bowels” or “pity.” The Lukan Jesus then uses splagchnizomai for the verb “to have compassion.” I find it fascinating that this Greek word originates in ritual sacrifice as the opposite of what it comes to mean in the Bible. In designating a human heart, kardia, for example, as it is cut out of a sacrificial victim, splagchna was de-humanizing. Instead of naming it a human organ, one de-humanized it by naming it something else, the nonspecific splagchna. In the Bible, though, this same word names the most humanizing impulse of all, compassion. Here, in 1 John 3:17, not helping a person in need means de-humanizing yourself and the other by closing off one’s compassion.
1. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, ch. 9, “Reimagining the Symbol of Original Sin.” If we take the beginning of this passage as 1 John 3:11, then these verses play a crucial role in this pivotal chapter for Alison’s thesis. He wants to show how the New Testament further de-mythologizes several of the Genesis myths — as he describes here:
In order to understand the positive sense of the self-giving up to death of Jesus, the apostolic witness makes use, in different places, of four quite distinct stories from Genesis, all of which are interpreted in the light of the Cross and Resurrection. To illustrate the sense of Christ’s death, he is shown as moved by a self-giving which is the undoing of Adam’s appropriation of divinity to himself (Paul’s argument about Adam’s desire in Romans 5-7, and the illustration of Christ’s self-giving in Philippians 2). He is shown as undoing the order based on fratricidal murder from the beginning (John’s reference to ‘Your Father . . .’ in Chapter 8, and the development of that in 1 John 3). Baptism into Christ’s saving death is shown to be the real sense behind the story of Noah’s Ark (1 Pet. 3, 20-21). Finally Christ is shown as undoing the scattering of all humanity following on the attempt to appropriate human unity by human effort alone at Babel (Luke’s presentation of Pentecost in Acts 2). That is to say that four quite distinct moments of Genesis, relating to desire, to murder, and to foundation of sociality, are shown to be capable of a strictly christological interpretation. Any symbol, then, of human origins that is capable of conflating these moments within a strictly christological interpretation has the advantage over other putative symbols of being exactly in line with the risen Christ’s own hermeneutic of scripture as explained on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:25-27). It is precisely because it permits the construction of such a symbol that mimetic theory recommends itself in this context. (pp. 245-246)
Here, then, is Alison’s re-reading of the Cain and Abel story, akin to 1 John 3:11-15:
The next ‘moment’ of Genesis which is used by the apostolic witness to make sense of Christ’s self-giving up to death is the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4. The essential elements of this story are as follows: we have the first humans whose identity is forged over against each other (that is, were born outside paradise). One kills the other in an act which he need not have done (Cain could have mastered his desire). The victim was innocent, and the rest of human society is founded from Cain. Culture comes into being, and depends on God’s threat of vengeance, should anyone retaliate against Cain, for its stability. But vengeance grows and multiplies, so that the seven-fold vengeance God threatens against anyone killing Cain becomes seventy-sevenfold by the time we reach Lamech. So here we have an unnecessary act of fratricide, founding human culture in violence. The peaceful continuity of human culture is guaranteed by God stepping in to maintain order by the threat of vengeance.
The christological re-reading of this permits two pieces of ‘demythologization.’ The first is regarding the strictly fraternal one-to-one nature of the murder. Girard has shown, in his reading of the Romulus and Remus myth (see The Scapegoat, pp. 88-94) that there is a tendency in the recounting of myths to hide the initially collective nature of the murder behind various stages of re-telling. So the version of the Romulus and Remus myth which most know is that in which Romulus kills his brother in one-to-one combat, and Rome is founded. However, behind this myth are other, older, versions in which Remus is killed in a collective scuffle, cecidit in turba, as well of course as the hint, behind the story of Romulus’ own disappearance into deification that he was in fact murdered collectively later on himself. It is not outrageous to suggest, then that we can read the story of Cain and Abel as a later crystallization of an earlier account of a collective murder, a crystallization that occurred as the collective nature of the murder, and thus the universality of the responsibility, became obscured. The Genesis story would then be the partial recovery of the truth hidden behind the myth. That there were other people around beside Cain is shown even in the story as we have it by his fear of what other people will do to him, from which God protects him (Genesis 4:14-15).
This recovery of the collectivity of the original murder is a piece of ‘demythologization’ which is entirely in accord with the christological re-reading which we have been carrying out. Christ was not killed in a one-to-one combat (if one considers Christ’s death as in one to one combat with the devil, then it is with the devil precisely considered as the governing principle of all collective murders), but collectively put to death. Furthermore, the apostolic witness understands Cain’s murder to be capable of a collective reading when Jesus addresses some Jews who had believed in him in John 8. They collectively seek to kill him because they are the sons of the devil who was a murderer from the beginning, that is, from the time of Cain: in John, Cain becomes the appropriate symbol for the collective murder of Christ. Exactly the same understanding can be seen in the Matthean ‘Woes to the Pharisees.’ Jesus sees himself as making visible all the victims of murder from the beginning, and sees those he is apostrophizing (a collectivity) as in solidarity with those murderers from the beginning. It is thus a perfectly legitimate christological re-reading of the Cain and Abel story to re-imagine the beginning as a collective murder: the ‘demythologization’ of the individual murder is proper to the apostolic witness itself.
The second piece of christological re-reading concerns the way in which it is God who guarantees the peace in the wake of the act of murder. Again, Girard shows that the prohibition against mimetic violence (vengeance) is something which flows from the experience of the founding murder itself. It was a frenzy of mimetic violence which led to the collective murder; the collective peace after the murder is such that it is attributed to the divinized victim. From this there are born prohibitions against the sort of mimetic behavior which led to the original violent crisis, and simultaneously the ritual re-enactment of that violence, sacrificing to the god (in imitation of the victim) so as to attempt to maintain alive the peace that resulted from the original murder. When, in Genesis 4, it is God who establishes the boundaries against vengeance, we have what is still a partial demythologization of the original birth of prohibitions against mimetic violence. This partial demythologization corresponds, once again, to the Jewish attitude towards the Law, seen as a divine bulwark against multiplying violence. However this very attitude comes in for a christological re-reading in the apostolic witness. For Paul, the Law, rather than being God’s bulwark against human violence was a human way of sacralizing violence, as shown in the crucifixion of Christ and Paul’s own zealous persecuting of Jesus in his followers. This is the same as the insistence in the Matthean sermon on the mount that the Law of itself does not reach us at the level of desire, but can be and is turned into an instrument of distorted desire.
In the light, then, of Christ’s self-giving up to death bringing to an end the Law, and permitting a sociality which lives the deepest intention of the Law without needing to be bound by the Law, it becomes possible to engage in a rigorously christological de-mythologization of God’s establishing the protective laws against violence. We have instead an original collective murder, from which there developed a series of prohibitions designed to ensure social order, attributed to a god or God. We have a partial de-mythologization of this in the Jewish Law where we have a Law whose deepest intention is to lead us away from fratricide altogether, and the final completion of this when Jesus’ self-giving up to death reveals the complete absence of divine complicity in shoring up the human social order, but rather God’s desire to bring into being a wholly different sociality which flows from, rather than being constructed over against, the victim. Our rigorously christological reading of Genesis 4 enables us to fill out the picture yielded by our reading of Genesis 3. We have a collective murder seen as inaugurating a culture, with all the key elements of prohibition against vengeance that produce sociality. (pp. 248-250)
Is the scene for the Good Shepherd discourse a continuation of proximity to action in Jerusalem in the autumn? Beginning in John 7, Jesus is in Jerusalem at the time of the Festival of Booths, or Tabernacles, a fall agricultural celebration that came to be associated with the wilderness journey after the exodus. At John 7:37, John tells us it’s the last day of this festival. Chapter 8 seems to begin the morning of the next day, with the entire chapter appearing as dialogues with various groups on that day. Chapter 9, the story of healing the man blind from birth, notes no change in time or place, simply implying continual action: As he walked along. . . .”
And here’s the crucial piece for the beginning of John 10, on the Good Shepherd: there is absolutely no break between the end of the exchange with the Pharisees about the man born blind and launching into his discourse on the Good Shepherd. Here’s the final verses of John 9 and the first verses of John 10:
9:39Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment 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. 10:1Very 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. 2The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” (John 9:39 – 10:5)
There is no pause in what Jesus is saying to the Pharisees from one chapter to the next. There is a narrative pause in verse 10:6 to explain the ‘figure’ of speech Jesus is using, but no change in audience, time, or place. The first two thirds of the Good Shepherd speech, John 10:1-18, is a continuation from John 9, and presumably still in the aftermath of the autumn festival.
John 10:19-21 — which is omitted from the lectionary’s tripart division of John 10 over the three-year cycle of Easter 4 — give us a reaction to Jesus’ words which cement the fact that they are a follow-up to the healing of the man born blind:
Again the Jews were divided because of these words. Many of them were saying, “He has a demon and is out of his mind. Why listen to him?” Others were saying, “These are not the words of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?”
Very strange then, too, is that the final segment of sayings about the Good Shepherd (for Easter 4C) very suddenly shifts the scene, and presumably the audience, in John 10:22-23: “At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon.” Why this sudden shift ahead several months, from the Festival of Booths in the autumn to the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah, in the winter?
1. James Alison on John 10, the Good Shepherd passage. The Joy of Being Wrong: John 10:18 is cited on p. 82; the whole passage on p. 146 & 199; for example:
In chapter 10 we have the same understanding at work: because of Jesus’ perfect imitation of the Father, he is able to make present on earth as a real human practice the way in which the Father is the shepherd of Israel. He does this precisely by the creative going to his death which brings about one flock and one shepherd. What he is doing is bringing about the Father’s shepherdliness by inaugurating a real human practice of shepherding a real human gathering into one. This is possible because there is no rivalry between him and the Father: they are an entirely interpenetrating reality. So, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30) is identical in content with “the Father is in me and I am in the Father” (John 10:38).
And in Raising Abel, Alison says the following on pp. 115-116:
Let us notice how this works: it is the forgiving victim who enables our memories to be healed. That is, the forgiveness of sins and the healing of memories is the same thing: what unbinds our past is what opens up our future. Please excuse the difficulty of all this, but it is of great importance if we are to understand the birth of the possibility of ‘eternal life’ or life without end. The revelation of God which Jesus brought about, the God who is known from the risen victim, made it possible that, instead of the constitution of a person whose memory is bound up in expulsive grasping of being because of the violent ‘other’ which surrounds him and gives him birth, the ‘Other’ which brings us to existence might be perfectly without violence, without rivalry. This revelation makes it possible for our memory, and through it, our life-story and our person, to be called into existence in such a way that the memory and the past do not form a threatening present, but rather a present which is in a process of constant enrichment by what is being given it, and where the future is precisely the continuation of an ever greater and ever richer reception of life. I think that when, in John’s Gospel, Jesus says that he came so that we might have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10), it is the same thing as when he refers to ‘eternal’ life, life without end.
Finally, Alison wrote a paper titled “The Good Shepherd” as the second part of an address in San Francisco in the fall of 1999 (unpublished and no longer available).
2. Gil Bailie, “The Gospel of John,” audio tape 7. Bailie gives some background to approaching this text which has completely changed the way I look at it. (Link to a sermon entitled “Love in Truth and Action,” revolving around this changed perspective.) Here are my transcribed notes of his lecture on this passage:
Internally, the background within John’s gospel comes from John 5:2, the reference to the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem. Jesus met the paralytic, whom he cured on the sabbath, at the pool near the Sheep Gate, which is the gate in the wall of Jerusalem through which the sheep were led and then held in a holding area on their way to the altar of sacrifice. It was the entry point for the victims of the sacrificial regime. So how should we understand the mention of sheep in John’s gospel? Often, it is as a reference to some form of bleating conformity. We think, “Oh, they’re all sheep.” No! The most important reference to sheep in the New Testament is sacrificial. Sheep are the sacrificial animals par excellence. (As a matter of fact, sacrifice gave rise to animal husbandry, in the first place. Animals were originally kept for sacrifice. So keeping livestock, in its origins, has never simply been a purely agricultural phenomenon.)
John’s gospel introduces us to Jesus through the words of John the Baptist (John 1:29): “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
Jesus begins his discourse: (John 10:1) “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.” It is not said, but doesn’t the background imply that shepherd (as opposed to the others who Jesus specifies) enters the sheepgate as one of the sacrificial animals?
Jesus continues: (John 10:2-3) “The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.” The shepherd enters into the gate in the same way that the sheep do. The sheep recognize his voice. They recognize the shepherd as one of them.
Who are the thieves and bandits who come in a different way?
If we are correct in suggesting that the ones who come in by the gate are victims, then the thieves and bandits are those who manipulate the system by redirecting its sacrificiality towards more expendable victims.
The word “bandit” has the connotations (in the Greek) of being a revolutionary, or insurrectionist. A revolutionary is one who turns the direction of the sacrificial system. He doesn’t transform it; he simply redirects it. The system revolves, but doesn’t transform.
Jesus also mentions another who comes in, in addition to the thieves and bandits, who is not the shepherd: the hired man. He says, (John 10:12-13) “The hired hand, who is not the shepherd 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. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.” So we might say that the hired hand is some functionary who tries his best to rehabilitate a certain victim, but only at the expense of another victim on whom he redirects the system. He’s just a hired man; he’s not really leading people out.
By contrast, Jesus says, (John 10:14-15) “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.” In other words, the difference between the sheep, i.e., the victim, and the shepherd disappear. Here is a shepherd who is himself a victim, and he will lead the sheep out of the sheepfold.
Jesus continues, (John 10:16) “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” Unanimously, the exegetes say that this refers to the other Christian communities besides the Johannine community (which recognizes it marginality among the early Christian communities, and that, sooner or later, it will have to come into koinoneia with other mainstream Christian communities). But, at an anthropological level, couldn’t this also be referring to all other religions, including Christianity as a religion? Isn’t this in one piece with John 12:31-32: “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”? That the one who takes the victim’s place and is crucified, that the moral force of that revelation, will begin to have effects everywhere, in every culture, in every religious tradition? It lets loose on the world a force that is so profound and irresistible and revolutionary that everyone will be affected. Now, this doesn’t mean that all those who practice Hinduism, for example, will abandon it for Christianity. But it does mean that this revelation will change everything.
3. James Alison, on John 9. Another aspect which has become crucial for me in interpreting John 10 (one also represented in the above sermon “Love in Truth and Action”) is the fact that John makes no pause from John 9 — no indication of a change of setting or audience. Here is the transition from one to the other:
Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains. 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. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. (John 9:40-10:2)
Alison has two elucidations on John 9 that are among the best and most important things that he’s written. The first is a crucial section on “The Johannine Witness” (excerpt) to “The Resurrection and Original Sin,” ch. 4, pp. 119-125, of The Joy of Being Wrong. Understanding how sin and death are intertwined — especially how the section from The Joy of Being Wrong follows out of the realization that we are actively involved in death — then we are better able to receive how it is that the Good Shepherd comes to give us life abundantly. Consider, for example, the two paragraphs leading into the section on “The Johannine Witness”:
This it seems to me is an anthropological discovery of unimaginable proportions. At exactly the same moment as God is revealed as quite beyond any human understanding marked by death, entirely gratuitous love, so also it is revealed that the human understanding marked by death is something accidental to being human, not something essential. Here we have the lynchpin of any understanding of Original Sin: that what we are as beings-toward-death is itself something capable of forgiveness. Furthermore we can see that the only way we are able to appreciate our true condition as humans-marked-by-death is precisely as it is revealed to us that that condition is unnecessary. It is in this way that the doctrine of Original Sin is the culmination of the revealed understanding of being human: the shape of divine forgiveness revealed in the resurrection of Jesus shows itself to stretch into our congenital involvement with death. The doctrine of Original Sin is the doctrine of the in-necessity of death. Its epistemological possibility is the discovery that the forgiveness of sins reaches further than the forgiveness of actions or intentions: it reaches into who we are as constituted in and by death. What is particularly vital is that if there had been no resurrection-as-forgiveness, there could have been no understanding of death itself as a reality of sin, and therefore no anthropological discovery of the non-necessity of death.
We might put this more simply by saying that the presence of the crucified and risen Lord to the disciples revealed that humans are wrong about God and about humanity. Not simply wrong as mistaken, but wrong as actively involved in death. And that this being wrong does not matter any longer, because we can now receive the truth, and thus life, from the forgiving victim. This then might be said to be a first approximation to Original Sin: that the doctrine of Original Sin is the doctrine according to which divine forgiveness makes known the accidental nature of human mortality, thus permitting an entirely new anthropological understanding. (JBW, p. 119)
The second Alison passage on John 9 is the opening chapter of Faith Beyond Resentment, entitled “The man blind from birth and the Creator’s subversion of sin” (pp. 3-26), which had previously been published in Contagion (Spring 1997). I recommend reading these two works on John 9 before preaching on John 10.
4. Gil Bailie brings up the failure of kingship as background to this passage. The Girardian theory about kingship is that it originates in the sacrificial: the king is initially the victim with the suspended sentence who is made to preside over the sacrificial cult in the interim. As long as kings can keep feeding victims to the sacrifice, there’s a good chance that their own sacrifice can be indefinitely delayed. Eventually, it becomes an established institution of government. But during sacrificial crises the king will often be the first to be sacrificed (e.g., Louis IV, Saul, and many others). For more on the Girardian reading of kingship, consult the indexes in both Violence and the Sacred and Things Hidden. Gil Bailie has a good explication of it in tape #1 of his lecture series “The Famished Craving,” which makes good use of anthropological data from Elias Canetti‘s Crowds and Power (a section entitled “African Kings” on pp. 411-424).
5. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from May 3, 2009 (Society of St. John at St. Mark’s Chapel, Palo Alto).
6. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2018, “The Good Shepherd who Cares for the Man Born Blind.”
7. For more on the full John 10 passage and it context, see the reflections for Good Shepherd Sunday Year C, Easter 4C.
Reflections and Questions
1. John’s version of the Good Shepherd motif is undoubtably more complex than that of Psalm 23. It might be described as “Psalm 23 Meets Isaiah 53.” The comforting pastoral scenes of the Psalm are placed in the context of a story in which the Good Shepherd is also preeminently the Lamb of God (John 1:29) who is led like a sheep to the slaughter, ala Isaiah 53. It leads, I think, to the more mature, eschatological hope of Revelation 7:17: “for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
2. Something that resonates with me about this text is that, since Jesus, there are two species of innocent sacrificial lambs: the kind who have existed since the beginning of time as fodder for the sacrificial machinery, and the Lamb of God and his disciples who offer themselves into the sacrificial machinery in a way that progressively gums up the works. When I speak of disciples of the Lamb / Good Shepherd, I think of saints such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., who led intentional movements of risking being fed into the sacrificial machinery as lambs to the slaughter. They shepherded large numbers of folks who essentially were willing to give themselves as substitute lambs, if it meant that future sheep might be saved from the slaughter.
In a sense, Jesus’ intentional substitution of himself as the Lamb of God sheds new light on all victim-sheep. The vision in Revelation 7 is of the multitude from every time and place who have come through the ordeal and are washed clean by the blood of the Lamb. Isn’t this what is happening progressively (though in great fits and spasms) with victims in our day? All the Jews of the Holocaust, for example, are seen as innocent. The Satanic blame just doesn’t stick very long. We are able to more quickly see the victims qua victims. It is even getting so that people want to be seen as the innocent victim — often times so that they might be justified in making victims out of their perpetrators. The latter, of course, are imitating the Lamb without the Spirit of forgiveness and love.
3. In 2003 I was invited to my home church, Faith Lutheran, Livonia, MI, to preach during its 50th anniversary year. I used the day’s readings to recall one of the most moving worship services I have ever attended, the funeral for a thirty-three year-old member who had pre-planned her entire funeral around the theme of a children’s song: “Life Is the Answer” — which was the title for my sermon, too.