Now that many of us have recovered from one of the harshest winters on record and spring is breaking forth in all its riotous, welcome glory, this Sunday’s Gospel lesson, four weeks into Easter, takes us back to mid-December and the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah.
It’s a minor point in the passage, perhaps–that Jesus is in Jerusalem for this winter festival (10:22)–but it’s also a reminder that the fourth evangelist frames Jesus’ public ministry liturgically: around Israel’s many feasts, fasts, and holy days. (This also reminds us that John’s much commented-on problem with “the Jews” is one internal to the community: a family squabble, not an outsider’s assault on the faith).
But maybe the reference to the festival of the Dedication is not incidental after all. Tom Wright notes that when Jesus’ contemporaries celebrated Hanukkah, they would have been mindful not only of liberation and the restoration of the Temple, but of kings and kingship–the tyrant Antiochus whom the Maccabees resisted; Herod the Great–the villainous, dynastic puppet-king appointed by Rome to rule over the Judeans.
But Jesus doesn’t talk about a king; he talks about a shepherd. (This tenth chapter of John’s Gospel, in fact, serves as the appointed text for Good Shepherd Sunday–the fourth Sunday of Easter–all three years of the lectionary cycle: vv. 1-10 for Year A; 11-18 for Year B; and 22-30 for Year C).
For the rabbi Jesus to call himself the “good shepherd” would have been offensive to the religious elite; it was a claim with a socio-economic edge to it. A modern-day equivalent might be for Jesus to say, as Nancy Blakely has noted, “I am the good migrant worker.”
So John is doing in his gospel something that Luke does in his. In the story of the Good Samaritan Jesus similarly scandalizes his hearers. The kingdom comes, he says, in surprising, unpredictable ways, through unheralded people and events, through a God who turns our expectations and our prejudices upside down.
The Good Samaritan. The Good Shepherd. Those who are lowly, contemptible; those who are discounted in a world of power and prestige: pay attention to these, the Gospel writers seem to say—God is probably at work in their midst. The Good Samaritan gives fully of himself to save a stranger. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
As this Sunday’s reading from Revelation indicates, the Good Shepherd is also the Lamb that was slain–he is both shepherd and sheep: “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” (7:17).
It’s an image with liturgical overtones (dramatic celestial worship), but one that also reveals the consummated reign of God in material terms: no more grief; no more tears. The “great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” are the scattered sheep brought into the fold–restored, reconciled, healed, forgiven.
Sunday’s Psalm–the familiar 23rd in the Revised Common Lectionary–renders the scene eucharistic: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies” (23:5). We’re so used to reciting this Psalm at funerals, we miss the good news it foretells: The good shepherd brings all into the fold—friend, stranger, outcast, enemy—and when we feast at his table, barriers are broken, divisions are overcome, enemies become friends.
Here is the material core of the faith we profess: body, blood, bread, wine, poured out at heaven’s table, shared by all here and now. The Good Shepherd–who tells a different Hanukkah story this Eastertide–lays down his life for the sheep. His body—taken, blessed, broken, and shared—becomes for us life-giving food. Nothing else will do; nothing else will satisfy our hunger or quench our thirst. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”