Children of the God of Israel
By Ellen T. Charry
Psalm 23 is appointed for the Fourth Sunday of Easter in Year A. It offers pastoral comfort and courage for those walking through a dark period of life. Christians read the Lord as Jesus, although for the poet the Lord was the God of Israel. The psalm leads the Christian in the pew to expect the gospel reading to sustain the theme of comfort and courage. And it does in the final English sentence of the final verse of this pericope: “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.”
But the rest of this passage goes in a different direction. It may take its cue from Ezekiel 34, where the prophet extensively excoriates shepherds of Israel who have been feeding themselves instead of the sheep. John’s gospel, written centuries after both the psalm and Ezekiel, depicts a tense and delicate situation between Jesusite and non-Jesusite Jews, with Jesus announcing himself as “the good shepherd” in the verse after our excerpt.
The notion of sheep-stealing comes from these verses. The location is a metaphorical sheepfold with a proper gate guarded by its good shepherd. The sheep know his voice and follow him. But some stranger has got into the sheepfold stealthily, and he is trying to steal Jesus’ sheep. But the sheep know not to follow the stranger. The thief probably relates to non-Jesusite leaders or simply to Jews who oppose Jesus. But, whether he is speaking to Jesusites or non-Jesusites, his listeners cannot penetrate the metaphor, so he tries again. He is the gate for the sheep to have access to abundant life. The thieves and bandits are those coming only “to steal and kill and destroy,” that is, to turn his followers from him. But the true sheep hold to him steadfastly.
That this story, almost a parable, is about Jesusite and non-Jesusite Jews, who were not yet designated Christians and Jews, is supported by many other verses in this gospel. The prologue says explicitly that his own people would not accept him. Jesus constantly incited conflict and confusion about who he was, where he had come from, and where he would go. Because of his strange claims about himself, he was dividing society. Chapter 6 offers specific examples. He says that if people eat him, they will have eternal life (52-59). And so early Christians were accused of cannibalism. The later teaching on transubstantiation would not weaken this accusation. John 6 admits, “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him” (66). In chapter 8, Jesus angrily debates those who do not or may have followed him but had left (31-33). At verse 43, he calls them “children of the devil.” This is part of the background to the pericope before us today.
How shall the Church preach and teach this pericope? Many will choose to preach on the offering of abundant life for Jesus’ followers and not mention what preceded it. But how might those intrepid enough to want to face into this angry depiction of division find it pastorally useful?
This lection is about conflict, increasingly bitter conflict in which compromise is never hinted at because one is either for or against the divisive protagonist. How, Christians might ask, could God/Jesus be divisive? Everyone is generously invited to partake of abundant life or eternal life through him. Who would resist that? A key to redeeming this passage might be to recognize that many people experience situations of conflict like this in their lives, situations where everything seems to be at stake and the right answer seems clear. For example, a former colleague of mine published, “How to discuss moral issues surrounding homosexuality when you know you are right?”
It helps to stand in the other’s place and look at the story from that perspective. In this lection, Jesus’ opponents would not see themselves as thieves and bandits, but as people deeply involved in a conflict about which they bring warrants for their position. In this particular case, that requires standing at a distance from the text and going outside it to examine the preceding nine chapters of John’s gospel. The question becomes: Can a person understand her opponent as she understands herself? One may not end up agreeing with the opponent, but striving to cultivate the skill of fairness is a pastoral gift. It is the Church forming good people.