Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Jesus' Sheep

Stained Glass, St. James Episcopal Church, San Francisco
As Nancy Rockwell points out in her insightful commentary on the "Good Shepherd Sunday" Gospel reading, the context of Jesus’ pointed exchange with the temple authorities provides important clues as to its meaning.   Jesus is in Jerusalem for the festival of the Dedication, better know to us as Hanukkah.  Hanukkah commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple in 164 BCE after its desecration by Antiochus IV.[1]

Antiochus, Alexander the Great’s successor, appointed a Hellenized high priest to the Temple and required pigs to be sacrificed on the high altar. He was trying to force the Jews to assimilate to Greek cultural norms.  In 165 the Hasmonean family of the legitimate High Priest, Mattiyahu, and his son, Judah Maccabee organized a revolt, and eventually evicted the Syrian-Greeks from Israel.  There followed a brief period of Jewish autonomy until the Romans occupied Israel. 

When the Maccabees liberated Jerusalem there was only enough purified oil to keep the Eternal Light burning in the Temple one more day, but the oil miraculously lasted eight days, until more could be prepared.  Hanukkah commemorates with joy the Light of the presence of God that could not be extinguished, preserving the Temple from becoming abandoned by God as well as desecrated.

Hanukkah raises the question:  does salvation come through sacrificing victims – in battle and on the altar – or by the light of God’s presence illuminating the darkness of our world?  Both military revolt and miraculous Presence are intertwined in the story and in its celebration. 

Hanukkah also raises the question of appropriate assimilation.  How Gentile can one become and still be Jewish, still part of the people of God?  What differences are necessary to preserve identity and under what conditions can the boundaries be relaxed?   Who decides?

It is perhaps ironic that Jesus and the authorities meet in the portico of Solomon.  Solomon, of course, built the first Temple in Jerusalem.  He was famously Israel’s wisest king.  But he also married women from many nations, incorporating their laws and customs in the exercise of his reign.  He allowed them to practice their religions (even in the Temple!); their children were mixed-race kids.  Solomon was a cosmopolitan multiculturalist.  He also was a Jew, but he was no purist.[2]

Antiochus said, “My way or the highway.”  The Maccabees responded in kind.  Solomon was more of a “let a thousand flowers bloom” kind of guy.  This rubbed the purists the wrong way in his own day and ever since; leaving them in the curious position of doubting the Jewishness of the king who founded the very Temple cult that defined their identity.

When Jesus and the religious authorities encountered one another on Solomon’s portico during the Hanukkah celebration, the issues of salvation and identity were very much alive for them too.  The Roman occupation wasn’t as bad as Antiochus, but Herod (a half-Jew, at best) and Pilate were no picnic.  Hellenization proceeded apace, eroding traditional Jewish identity; especially when one became richer by being more “Roman.” 

So, the religious leaders demand that Jesus put his cards on the table.  “How long are you going to keep us in suspense?  If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”[3]  This is a challenge, to be sure, but I also hear the desperation in their voice.   Jesus was a suspicious character.  He played fast and loose with the law, hung out with the wrong kind of people, and generally pushed the boundaries.  He was no purist.  But desperate times call for desperate measures.   Jesus did seem able to move the masses.  Maybe he would just have to do. 

Many Jewish leaders were looking for a second Hanukkah:  a new Judah Maccabee to liberate them from Roman occupation and restore proper Jewish identity.  Salvation would come by sacrificing appropriate victims in the Temple and on the battlefield.  Bring on the sheep and the Roman legions and let the bloodletting begin.

Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe.   The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.  My sheep hear my voice.  I know them and they follow me.”[4]

To continue with the Hanukkah image, Jesus is all about the light of God’s presence.  It is the works that he does in his Father’s name that manifest this presence:  healing, feeding, forgiving, and freeing people without regard for distinctions of gender, class, race, culture or creed.  The source of salvation is this wellspring of divine compassion that flows everywhere, creating a new and undivided humanity.  Jesus demonstrates his unity with the Father in action.  He is God because he does God. To paraphrase James Alison, he “gods god goddingly.”[5]

“I don’t need to tell you I’m the Messiah,” says Jesus, “because my actions speak for themselves.  You didn’t give your heart to me, you didn’t commit yourself to participating in my work, and so you couldn’t hear me.  You don’t belong to my sheep.”

Here we come to the heart of the matter.  For Jesus, everything turns on identifying with the sheep.  It is a prominent metaphor in John’s Gospel.  John the Baptist introduces us to Jesus with the exclamation, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”[6]  Later, Jesus heals a paralytic on the Sabbath near the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem.[7]  This was the entrance through which sheep were led into a holding pen in preparation for their use in the sacrificial cult of the Temple. 

Then we have the familiar figures of speech employed by Jesus to describe his identity and mission:  “I am the gate for the sheep . . . whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”  “I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”  “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.”[8]

When Jesus speaks of sheep, he is not talking about soft, fuzzy pets.  He isn’t talking about simple-minded followers who do what they are told.  He is talking about sacrificial victims.  Those who belong to Jesus’ “sheep” are those who identify with society’s victims, who act in compassionate solidarity with the poor, the outcast, and the “other.”

Jesus’ use of sheep and shepherd imagery is rather peculiar.[9]   He is the “gate” through which the sheep enter, but unlike the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem it does not lead to being made a victim.  The sheep are free to move in and out, so that they can find green pastures.  It is an image of freedom, of shelter and feeding, of relaxed boundaries. 

It is the good shepherd who lays down his life instead of the sheep.  The good shepherd gives his life freely so that sheep will no be sacrificed.  The shepherd becomes a sheep, but his death is a choice that gives life.  It is an act of freedom, an act of compassion that refuses to make new victims in response to violence.  Jesus entrusts himself entirely to the light of God’s presence, which cannot be extinguished, to hold him in life even in death. 

The good shepherd-who-becomes-a-sheep is an image of indeterminate identity.  There is no clinging to rigid distinctions, no need to shore up boundaries as if salvation were a matter of preserving purity:  not being contaminated by those people.  As we move through the “gate” that is the “good shepherd” we discover other sheep, different flocks, which also hear his voice.  We discover ourselves become part of a “we” that is in no way defined by a “they.”  There is just one flock, one shepherd.

“The Father and I are one,” says Jesus.[10]  As Gil Bailie notes, “we have a Son who is indistinguishable from the Father, a shepherd who is indistinguishable from the sheep, and a Lord who is indistinguishable from a brother or friend.”[11]  This is an expansive vision of a unified reality that includes each and all.  Jesus’ sheep hear his voice, they recognize this reality, and they follow him by acting with compassionate awareness.  They, too, “god god goddingly.”

When we die to our fear of death, of being outcast, of being a victim, we are free to transcend fixed identities and respond with compassion to suffering victims and anxious purists alike.  Like Solomon, we can acknowledge the sheep of other folds as gifts, as partners in the work of love, as rays of the light of God’s presence that enhance the brightness of the light in a dark world.  We can reject the domination of an Antiochus or a Herod, without becoming another Judah Maccabee. 

In the debate between purists and assimilationists, Jesus comes down squarely on the side of the assimilationists, but with a twist.  The unity we share can only be realized through compassionate awareness of the divine Presence.  Such awareness preserves difference-within-unity and is the complete opposite of authoritarian uniformity.  Purist domination is to be resisted nonviolently in imitation of the good shepherd, who becomes a sheep in order to break the cycle of sacrificial violence.  Salvation means no more victims. 

[1] Nancy Rockwell’s commentary is found at
[2] Rockwell, ibid.
[3] John 10:24
[4] John 10:25-27
[5] James Alison, “How Do We Talk About The Spirit,” at
[6] John 1:29
[7] John 5:2
[8] John 10:9, 11, 16
[9] As James Alison notes in his essay, “The Good Shepherd” at
[10] John 10:30
[11] Bailie is quoted at  Cf. John 15:13-15.

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