Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Easter (12 May 2019)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one” (John 10:27-30 – NRSV).
This Gospel passage is situated during “the Feast of Dedication in Jerusalem” – see John 10:22. This gives a particular historical context and perspective on Jesus at this time: “This relatively recent celebration was instituted to commemorate the rededication of the Temple after Judas Maccabeus’ successful campaign to take possession of Jerusalem in 164 B.C.E.
In 175 B.C.E. Antiochus IV ascended the throne in Syria. He planned to extend his rule into Egypt but he first had to consolidate his authority over the outlying areas of his present rule (cf. 1 Macc 1:41). The Jewish people resisted him, but he found support among segments of the Jewish aristocracy and priesthood. He deposed the rightful high priest, Onias III, and sold the priesthood to Onias’ brother Joshua, who changed his name to the Greek ‘Jason’. A gymnasium was built in Jerusalem (1 Macc 1:11–13), and Jews hid their circumcision as they participated naked in the events of the gymnasium. They disowned the sign of the covenant. Antiochus, now calling himself ‘Epiphanes’ (“the manifest God”) decreed that all should worship Zeus Olympios, so that the people ‘would forget the law and change all the ordinances’ (1 Macc 1:49; cf. vv. 41–50). Opposition led to persecution and death (1 Macc 1:60–64; cf. 1:56–58). On the fifteenth of Chislev in 167 B.C.E. a sacrifice to Zeus was offered in the Temple on a pagan altar built over the altar of holocausts. This new altar was called ‘the desolating sacrilege’ (1 Macc 1:59; cf. Dan 11:31).
These events led to the revolt initiated by a Jewish priest, Mattathias. Through a remarkable series of events and fortunate coincidences his son Judas eventually had the better of the Syrian forces, finally defeating them in 164 B.C.E. (1 Macc 2:1–4:35). His first task was the purification of the Temple. The ‘desolating sacrilege’ was torn down and a new altar of holocausts erected. The Temple area was rebuilt and refurbished. Lamps were set up to illuminate the sacred ground once again, marking the restoration of Temple order (1 Macc 4:46–51; cf. 2 Macc 10:1–4). The Temple was rededicated on the twenty-fifth of Chislev, 164 B.C.E., three years after its defilement, and this event was commemorated each year in the celebration of the feast of the Dedication” (Francis J Moloney SDB, The Gospel of John, pp. 312–313). Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1998, 312-313).
Unlike the religious authorities – who are more like those who betrayed the Covenant in the time of Judas Maccabaeus – Jesus is the faithful one, the “good shepherd” who lays down his life for the sheep and restores the loving intimacy of the Covenant.
My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me: The Greek verb akouō may be translated as “hear” or “obey”. The idea of obedience in the Bible is a very rich one. It means much more than “doing as one is told” – see Notes for Second Sunday of Lent (Feast of the Transfiguration). Hear/obey implies intimacy and trust. The true disciples have this relationship with Jesus – in contrast to the religious authorities. Francis Moloney writes: “Many themes from earlier parts of the Gospel are gathered in these few verses” (Francis J Moloney, op cit, 320). “A believer ‘hears’ (1:41; 3:8, 29; 4:42; 5:24, 28; 6:45; 8:38, 43; 10:3, 16), has ‘eternal life’ (3:15, 16, 36; 4:14, 36; 5:24, 39; 6:27, 40, 47, 54, 68), ‘follows’ Jesus (1:37, 44; 8:12; 10:4, 5), and ‘is not lost’ (3:16; 6:12, 27, 39; 10:10)” (Op cit, 315).
I give them eternal life, and they will never perish: Jesus is clearly taking the metaphor to another level. He says in 10:10 he will give them ‘life to the full’. The language is altered but the message is essentially the same: ‘I give them eternal life’. The ‘full’ life becomes the ‘infinite’ life. What is more this infinite or eternal life is his very own life. Belief in Jesus, on his terms, brings life and no one can take it away because he and the Father are one. What becomes obvious here is that the “life” on offer is the very being of Jesus himself: “To his own sheep, then, Jesus gives eternal life (cf. notes on 1:4; 3:15). In terms of the sheep metaphor, Jesus has already said that he gives them ‘life ... to the full’, abundant life (v. 10); now he plainly states that such life is his own eternal life, frequently ‘hidden’ in the Gospel under the figures of water, bread, light, good pasture. The consequence of his knowing his sheep, and of his gift to them of eternal life, is that they shall never perish. It could not be otherwise, if they have eternal life (cf. notes on 6:51, 58; 8:51, 52; 11:26). Even so, the focus is not on the power of the life itself, but on Jesus’ power: no-one can snatch them out of my hand, not the marauding wolf (v. 12), not the thieves and robbers (vv. 1, 8), not anyone. To think otherwise would entail the conclusion that Jesus had failed in the explicit assignment given him by the Father, to preserve all those given to him (cf. notes on 6:37–40). The ultimate security of Jesus’ sheep rests with the good shepherd” (D A Carson, The Gospel according to John, Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans, 1991, 393).
The Father and I are one: See Jesus’ priestly prayer – John 17:21. See also John 10:38, 14:11 &20, and the parable of the vine, 15:1-17. The ultimate implication is that Jesus is offering his disciples a share in the communion he has with the Father.
The English word “tradition” comes from the Latin word, tradere, meaning “to hand over”. We get our words “trade” and “betray” from the same root. There is plenty of room for both good and bad here. Put most simply, tradition – authentic tradition – is about passing on what we think matters. It involves both process and content. Paradoxically, if a tradition really matters to us, we will be willing to make the necessary changes – in ourselves and in our systems – in order to keep the tradition alive and well. This can demand both deep commitment and great courage and generally is not achieved easily.
Jesus was born into a tradition. That tradition carries the extraordinary truth of God’s choice, promise and Covenant. Throughout history, the people had shown great commitment and courage to keep that tradition alive and well. Jesus enters that tradition, not to kill it off, but to bring it to fulfilment. The religious authorities of his day did not quite see it that way. Thus we have the special context of today’s Gospel – John 10:27-30.
A few verses before today’s text, we hear the announcement: “At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem” (10:22). We read in the First Book of Maccabees: “The king wrote to his whole kingdom that all should be one people, and that all should give up their particular customs. All the Gentiles accepted the command of the king. Many even from Israel gladly adopted his religion; they sacrificed to idols and profaned the sabbath” (1:41-43). The king is Antiochus IV of Syria. He has designs on Egypt and the Israelites are in the way. It is in the year 175 BCE and it marks the beginning of more than a decade of awful persecution of the Jewish people. Many are tortured and put to death and the temple is profaned. Antiochus, however finds support amongst the Jewish aristocracy and the priesthood. In 164 BCE, Judas Maccabeus defeats the invaders and restores and purifies the temple. The festival of Dedication recalls that history. This is a very significant moment in the Jewish tradition.
Celebrating the festival of Dedication is an act of remembering. What is being remembered? Most especially, the festival remembers those faithful ones who defended the tradition and were prepared to die for it. This is inspiring. It is also enlightening and strengthening. In this way the people grow in their appreciation of the tradition and all that it represents. Those who were unfaithful are remembered too. It is salutary to remember them because infidelity is always a possibility for any of us.
The words – and the staccato manner of expression – evoke a sense of urgency and determination in John’s text. Earlier words are echoed: “I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me” (6:38). Like Judas Maccabeus and all those who throughout history sought to know God’s will and live it faithfully – no matter what the cost – Jesus is determined to live out his mission.