FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
USCCB link to all three readings
"Amen, amen, I say to you,
whoever does not enter a sheepfold through the gate
but climbs over elsewhere is a thief and a robber.
But whoever enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.
The gatekeeper opens it for him, and the sheep hear his voice,
as the shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.
When he has driven out all his own,
he walks ahead of them, and the sheep follow him,
because they recognize his voice.
But they will not follow a stranger;
they will run away from him,
because they do not recognize the voice of strangers."
Although Jesus used this figure of speech,
the Pharisees did not realize what he was trying to tell them.
So Jesus said again, "Amen, amen, I say to you,
I am the gate for the sheep.
All who came before me are thieves and robbers,
but the sheep did not listen to them.
I am the gate.
Whoever enters through me will be saved,
and will come in and go out and find pasture.
A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy;
I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly."
Given that the last three Sundays of the Resurrection have focused upon the joy and mystery of Jesus’ victory over the grave, there is something of an abrupt shift in the Gospel of the Fourth Sunday of Easter (devotionally referred to as “Good Shepherd Sunday” a few generations back). John 10 is situated toward the end of Jesus’ public ministry, between the miracle of the man born blind (Fourth Sunday of Lent) and the raising of Lazarus (Fifth Sunday of Lent.) Twice in this sequence Jesus encounters hostile Jewish enemies who wish to do him physical harm. As Raymond Brown notes in his Anchor Bible Commentary, there is nothing in the Greek text to suggest that the audience for this Sunday’s discourse (John 10: 1-10) is different from the one that has consistently questioned and harassed him.
The text, at first glance, is directed toward Jesus’ enemies in his own time, though his enemies were slow to pick this up, “the Pharisees did not realize what he was trying to tell them.” The inclusion of the term Pharisees is helpful in identifying the main thrust of Jesus’ words; they are identified with a perversion of the Law in strong language, as “thieves and robbers.” Matthew 24:3 contains a similar sentiment: “So practice and observe everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, burdensome loads and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.”
John’s use of the sheep and shepherd metaphor is consistent with the other three Gospels. St. Mark speaks of the crowd following Jesus as sheep without a shepherd, and St. Luke’s parable of the lost sheep (chapter 15) is a catechetical staple. In our setting, the metaphor begins with entering the sheepfold, where one is safe and well nurtured. There is one gate to this haven, protected by an authorized shepherd or gate keeper. Anyone who tries to obtain access to the flock by jumping the fence is “a thief and a robber.” When the flock must leave the haven of the corral, it is the voice of the true shepherd who keeps them together as they move in search of grazing land or water. “They will not follow a stranger…because they do not recognize the voice of strangers.”
There is some confusion in following this text because throughout Chapter 10 Jesus does change metaphors. In our Sunday reading one would swear that Jesus is identifying himself as the shepherd. But in the second paragraph Jesus declares “I am the gate;” But then, but for the balance of Chapter 10 (beyond Sunday’s text) Jesus refers to himself as the Good Shepherd. The constant in the entire chapter, as Father Brown observes, (p. 388) is the presence of dangerous thieves and marauders. Whether as the gate or the shepherd, Jesus identifies himself as a figure of authority, or better, the figure of authority. The Greek translation of “I am” in John’s Gospel is ego eimi, a translation of the much earlier Israelite term for God, as at the burning bush with Moses: “I am who I am” has sent you to pharaoh.” Consider in John’s Gospel, “I am the bread of life,” or “I am the vine, you are the branches.”
John’s entire Gospel is a statement of Jesus’ identity, which was a subject of much misunderstanding and fierce partisanship. Father Brown’s The Community of the Beloved Disciple: The Life, Loves and Hates of an Individual Church in New Testament Times (1978) was and remains a valuable if controversial treatment—a hypothesis, really—of the local church to which John was writing, a community with rifts if the three Epistles of John are any indication. By 100 A.D. or later, the best estimate of the dating of the Gospel’s composition, the antagonism between Jewish Christian converts and Gentile converts may have been running high, particularly if the community absorbed a large number of Samaritans who felt no love for Jews. Recall Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman.
The fact that Jesus repeats the “I am” phrase several times in Sunday’s text indicates John’s desire to pass along the nature of Jesus as truly God and truly man for future generations. Pheme Perkins, author of the Gospel of John Commentary in The Jerome Biblical Commentary (1990), makes an interesting point: “Perhaps the readers of the Gospel [of John] are envisaged as falling into one or more of the misunderstandings represented by characters in the story.” (p. 950). We know some of these misunderstandings from Paul’s epistles written five decades earlier: the Corinthian Christians had reduced Jesus to myth; the Colossian Christians worshipped intermediate spirits and angels.
More widespread and dangerous were the heresies we know about in some detail. Gnostics denied that Jesus had ever been a man. Docetists held that Jesus was an appearance, not a man (against which John reports Jesus’ words to Thomas, “put your finger in my hands and my side….”). Marcionites rejected the whole of the Hebrew Scripture. Montanus identified himself as the Paraclete and attracted followers. Manicheans held that all matter was evil. These errors—and too many more to list—were in fully play by the beginning of the second century. (See Paul Johnson, A History of Christianity (1976), available on Kindle, Audible, and other formats, for a full description of the Christian mission, pp. 3-66)
In last Sunday’s Gospel—the disciples on the road to Emmaus—Luke corrects misunderstandings about Jesus arising from Hebrew Scripture in the past. In this Sunday’s Gospel, we see John encountering new challenges facing a Christian mission preaching a resurrected Savior to a much larger world than Palestine. Perhaps there is considerable wisdom in assigning this Gospel to the middle of the Church’s resurrection feast.