It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Easter 4
Easter 4 (Year C): John 10:22-30 and Ezekiel 34
1) This is the fourth of the seven weeks of Eastertide; between now and Pentecost, we’ll explore passages about faith and intimacy with God. Here we’ve paired the lectionary’s gospel reading with Ezekiel 34, a passage Jesus evokes in this week’s story.
2) A central drama in John’s Gospel revolves around the question of who does and who doesn’t recognize Jesus as the promised Messiah. His ministry provokes a wide range of reactions: some think he’s a blaspheming, demon-possessed madman; others, the long-awaited savior (John 7:40-44; 8:48; John 9:16). In the debate just before this week’s passage, the crowd is divided over Jesus comparing himself to a “good shepherd.” “Many of them were saying, ‘He has a demon and is out of his mind. Why listen to him?’ Others were saying, ‘These are not the words of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?’ (John 10:20-21).
3) This “good shepherd” discourse (John 10:1-18) introduces several key themes that Jesus revisits in this week’s reading. Evoking Ezekiel, Jesus warns that there are false shepherds who mean to do the sheep harm, or in any case are cowardly and self-serving, abandoning the sheep when “the wolf snatches them” (Ezekiel 34; John 10:12). But Jesus, by contrast, is “the good shepherd” who truly cares for the sheep, indeed who “came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). The sheep have learned this first-hand; they trust the good shepherd; they know his voice, and follow him (John 10:3-5).
4) The NRSV translation’s heading for this week’s passage is “Jesus is Rejected by the Jews” - but this is a mistake. On the contrary, as the preceding chapters in John (and even the preceding verses in John, 10:20-21) make clear, the reaction to Jesus among the Jewish community is a mixed bag, and includes significant support. Moreover, throughout John, the phrase “the Jews” typically means “the Jewish authorities,” not least because Jesus and his followers were also Jewish (and even among Jewish authorities, please note, Jesus had some defenders; see, for example, John 7:50-51).
1) It’s the “festival of Dedication” (today known as Hanukkah), commemorating the Jewish cleansing and restoration of the Temple in 164 BCE, after its desecration by Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Jesus is walking on the Temple grounds along a large porch or covered walkway known as “the portico of Solomon” (John 10:23). It’s a prestigious location, and so lends this scene a sense of stature. Controversy about whether or not Jesus is the Messiah has been roiling for some time now, and so a crowd gathers and presses Jesus to come clean once and for all: “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly” (John 10:24).
2) “I have told you,” Jesus says, “and you do not believe” (John 10:25). According to John, Jesus hasn’t yet spoken directly to this question in public; he’s said privately that he is the Messiah, but not to the crowds (for example, see John 4:25-26). So when Jesus says here, “I have told you,” he doesn’t mean with words - he means with acts of healing, feeding, and restoration, “signs” that, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, clearly declare who he is (John 10:25; compare 5:36). Similarly, in Matthew and Luke, when John the Baptizer sends word and asks, “Are you the one who is to come?”, Jesus says, Tell John what you see and hear. Talk is cheap - it’s my actions that say it all (Matthew 11:2-5; Luke 7:20-22).
3) Why don’t Jesus’ critics recognize him as the Messiah? Do they lack the right perspective, the right doctrines, the right ideas, the right “signs,” the right arguments? No, Jesus says, this isn’t that kind of thing. These critics don’t recognize my voice; they don’t sense my love and care, and so no argument or sign will persuade them. My sheep, by contrast, know my voice; they see and hear the eloquence of my works; they trust and follow. I will never forsake them (not even death can separate us!); we are one, just as my Father and I are one. No wolf can snatch them away - and so they can rest assured.
1) Asked to define the rhythm known as “swing,” Louis Armstrong famously replied, “If you have to ask, you’ll never know.” His point wasn’t to exclude anyone from understanding swing; rather, his point was that verbally defining it isn’t the path to understanding it. On the contrary, the way to understand swing is to hear it, to dance to it, to get a feel for it. In the end, swing really isn’t something that can be explained; it has to be experienced.
2) Jesus’ point in this passage is similar. When it comes to his messiahship, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, there’s already plenty of “evidence” on the table (teaching, healing, signs). But that’s just it: without such ears and eyes, no amount of evidence or argument will do. Claims have their counterclaims; signs have their skeptics. And after all, on an even deeper level, faith really isn’t a game of “evidence” in the first place. Wisdom and wonders can point us in helpful directions, of course, but in the end everything comes down to this: a vital, experiential sense of love and trust.
3) Imagine a child with loving parents: the child senses their love; she hears their voice, trusts, and follows. Assessing the “evidence” from arm’s length doesn’t enter into it. The child’s knowledge of her parents’ love doesn’t rest on some verbal definition of it; it rests on her experience of it. If you have to ask (for a verbal definition), you’ll never know. Like swing, or jazz, or music of any kind, love is something you sense from the inside out, from seeing and hearing and feeling it - not from the outside in.
4) Faith is like that, Jesus says - and to help make this clear, he borrows a metaphor from the ancient prophets: a shepherd and a flock of sheep. The sheep don’t analyze evidence or arguments or definitions; rather, they sense the shepherd’s love and care (or not). In the case of a good shepherd, over time the sheep become, in a way, “one” with the shepherd, listening and acting in concert with him - just as we become “one” with those we most love and trust. It’s not that we follow them mindlessly; we keep our wits about us! But we sense that they have our best interests at heart - that our interests are their interests, and vice versa - and so we live in a kind of unity with them. We are “in this together,” we say, or “of one accord,” or “of one mind.” We each want the other to “have life, and have it abundantly” - and this kind of unity, intimacy, and good will, this kind of communion, is precisely what God wants to have with us (John 10:10). This is the good news of the Gospel! God is “with us,” and calls us to be with God, in this deep-down-to-our-toes, existential, indwelling sense: “Abide in me,” Jesus says, “as I abide in you” (John 15:4). Come what may, the Good Shepherd is with us, and won’t ever let us go!
5) But what about those who don’t “hear Jesus’ voice” - does this mean they are somehow left out and excluded? It doesn’t, for at least two reasons. First, to cast faith as a loving, trusting relationship of communion - as something you have to enter into, rather than merely think about or argue about from a distance - is at heart an open invitation, not an exclusion. It’s to say, Come in, try it out, taste and see. In other words, “If you have to ask, you’ll never know” can be rephrased this way: Talking about it won’t get you where you want to go - if you want to understand this kind of music, come to the concert tonight! Or, to shift the metaphor: from outside on the street, stained-glass windows aren’t much to look at; you have to come inside and visit in order to see the artistry, color, and light. Thinking of faith in this participatory, relational way, then, doesn’t exclude so much as prioritize experience over arguments. Second and finally, in Jesus’ “good shepherd” teaching, he goes out of his way to warn his followers against exclusionary assumptions: “I have other sheep,” he says, “that do not belong to this fold” (John 10:16). We dare not put limits - religious or otherwise - on God’s love and care!