John 10:11-18, The Life-giving Shepherd, Our Mother

[April 26, 2015] Today is the fourth Sunday of Easter, the Sunday we celebrate Jesus as the Good Shepherd. How is this an Easter text? Because the good shepherd lays down his life (his soul) for his sheep—unlike the hireling—laying it down of his own free will and by his own power (as he says according to the New Jerusalem Bible’s translation), and takes it up again. Why would a shepherd have to lay down his soul? Jesus describes a hireling who sees a wolf coming to attack and scatter the sheep, who runs away because he has no concern for the sheep. A good shepherd on the other hand risks his life to protect the sheep from a predator and to keep them together—because he is concerned for them: he knows his own and they know him as intimately as his Father knows him and he knows the Father (!). By laying down his soul, Jesus does not abandon his sheep (as others might be doing) but takes his soul up again so that he can be with them forever—and indeed gather other sheep (gentiles who are “not of this fold”) that they, the original sheep and the new ones, can be one flock together, having him as their one shepherd.

Before we go on, we should notice the distinction between a fold and a flock. The fold refers to an enclosure that keeps the sheep together and protects the sheep from the outside world. The flock is what the sheep are when you take them out of the pen into the pastures. What keeps them together and protects them there is the shepherd (there are no walls). In the tenth chapter of John’s gospel, the shepherd literally throws the sheep out of the fold and takes them out to pasture as his flock. The fold refers to the institutions of Israel, in particular the institutions of the Temple, which kept the sheep until the time of his coming. Now that he has come, he becomes their unity and protector. Moreover, this flock is no longer bound by the walls of their pen but can include sheep who do not come from this original fold. Originally Jesus was speaking of the man to whom he had given sight, who was born blind, who was “thrown out” of the synagogue. By the time John wrote his gospel, Temple Judaism was over and the church which succeeded it (alongside her sister, the synagogue) embraced sheep from among the gentles. The new community was now independent of the synagogue, although it was sometimes still united with it (Jewish Christians and the gentile Christians as god-fearers might still attend synagogue on the Sabbath, the day which preceded the time when Christians gathered on their own to break bread).

This does not imply an end of Judaism, though the new institutions of the Church and of Rabbinic Judaism replaced the old Judaism of the Second Temple. (As when the one kingdom of Israel became the northern and southern kingdoms, so the post-exilic Judaism of the second temple became two: Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity. As the prophets promised that the northern and southern kingdoms will reunite eschatologically, so will Christianity and Judaism.) Christians received Jesus as the Messiah of Israel who fulfilled but did not abolish the Torah and the Prophets. From Paul’s Pharisaic point of view, the gentile believers did not, by turning to the Messiah of Israel, thereby become Jews. Rather, as gentiles who renounced idolatry and turned to the God of Israel, while remaining gentiles (not Jewish proselytes), they too fulfilled what was written in the prophets concerning what the Messiah would do. The God of Israel would overturn the chaos of the gentiles and they too would turn to the one God whose word went out from Zion and who offered salvation to the gentiles from Zion (Zion, the place where Jesus died and rose again, becomes in Christian language a spiritual rather than only a geographical descriptor).

Paul’s conviction was a departure from Pharisaic interpretation and practice, for they actively sought out the gentiles to convert them. Remember, the god-fearers were gentiles who attended the synagogue and worshipped the God of Israel but had neither adopted the Jewish Halakah nor given up their native idolatry. Proselytes were those gentiles who not only gave up idolatry but, by the rite of circumcision and a ritual bath, adopted the Jewish Halakah as their own: they became Jews. The Christian mission, not only under Paul’s leadership but also Peter’s, insisted that the gentiles give up their idolatry and undergo the “bath” of baptism, but also that they not adopt the Jewish Halakah but learn the life of the Spirit within the new community of the Church (together with their fellow Jews in this same community).

Paul never insisted that Jewish believers in Jesus give up the Halakah. Rather, he taught them to understand its practice differently, no longer as an obligation which justified them in the eyes of God and earned their salvation (something never taught in the Old Testament) but rather as a privilege that was a sign of God’s election and grace, not the means of it (see Romans 4). As such the Halakah was a sign to their fellow believers who were gentiles, which sign was rendered meaningless—as far as the Messiah was concerned—if these gentile companions adopted the Halakah for themselves (see Paul’s epistle to the Galatians).

Notice also that in John’s gospel Jesus is not so much raised by the Father as given the power to raise himself from the dead. That power is the life that is in him, the eternal or divine life which is impervious to human (and creaturely) death. That life has the power not only to resuscitate a dead body (return life to a body), as Jesus demonstrated that it has the power to do in the case of Lazarus, but it has creative power. Jesus recreated his body which had been ruined by the cross. The life of his new body was incorruptible, it was alive with the eternal life of his person (his hypostasis). So, in John’s gospel we move beyond the idea that the power of God acted on the body of Jesus externally, as any other miracle. The body was recreated and came to life from what it had within.

It was the body of Jesus, with which his person (hypostasis) identified. There is a sense in which we are our bodies, even though we cannot simply be reduced to our bodies. The body is not alien to our souls, as if it were a foreign cloak (it might be equally valid to think of our bodies as within our souls—in terms of consciousness this is true; they are only exterior in that they give our souls access to the world around us). We may not be friends with our body; if we are chronically sick it may be to us like an enemy, but this sense of alienation from our own bodies does not separate us from it. We are not identical, however, to its health nor to its looks (in view of our modern obsessions, this is an important distinction to make). Rather, we are identical—though not reducible—to its being, its physical presence in the world.

Jesus raised his own body from the dead, recreating it and imbuing it with his own indestructible life. For a Sabbath Jesus was dead: having commended his spirit (his “breath”) back to God, he descended to the realm of Hades (She’ol), where Paradise is, while his body slept on the earth. In death our bodies too sleep on the earth, our matter becoming indistinguishable from the earth’s own. Our identities do not dissolve with our bodies as they “sleep.” Our identities remain with God, “remembered,” while tied to our own memories and sense of self as they reside in She’ol, suffering or in peace. When, however, God raises us from the dead, giving us back our bodies, we become reunited to our “bodies,” though our bodies are not now the resuscitated bodies of what was once ours but something recreated by the life that raises us. The life that raises us is the divine life that we now have by our union with Jesus, and so our resurrection is like his. Ours will be a physical body with a physical presence, but it will not be bound by the laws of physics with which we are familiar. The physics that will be at work in our new bodies will follow the laws that characterize space as it edges towards ubiquity, and time as it edges toward eternity (where perhaps the duality of consciousness and matter dissolves). We will be ourselves, and our bodies will be our own. They will be different, however, than what we know now (as Paul explains in 1st Corinthians 15:35-53); even our appearance will be radically different, though altogether appropriate and beautiful. Like Jesus in resurrection, in this body we will be present, ourselves, as persons.

With these distinctions in place, the words of Jesus in John 10 should not be difficult to understand. I want us to return to the concept of the shepherd. Just as the metaphor Jesus uses with respect to the flock emphasizes its nourishment, protection and unity, so the concept of the shepherd emphasize his knowledge of his sheep, and their knowledge of him, and his willingness to lay down his life for them. In John’s writings, this willingness to lay down one’s life for the other is an expression of love. “This is the proof of love, that he laid down his life for us, and we too ought to lay down our lives for our siblings” (1 John 3:16). This is also true of knowledge. We know our Shepherd, but surely this does not refer to comprehension or understanding. It is something personal and speaks of a bond. A mother knows her baby and the baby its mother. It is more than recognition. On the mother’s part at least it is the bond of love. Christ knows us as a mother knows her child; Christ is thus bound to us and loves us.

Jesus will one day say to those believers of whom he disapproves, “I do not know you.” This kind of recognition and knowledge speaks of approval, but also of a bond. Unfaithful believers have broken this bond. Even though they have worked their tails off in his name, Jesus says the bond is not there. His words are devastating. The bond apparently is not permanently broken, but it is disrupted. We do not speak of this now. We speak of the sheep whom he calls. They are in the fold (the pen) and he calls them out by name. They recognize Jesus as their own and come running to him: there is a bond between them that his voice calling them awakens. When they run to him it is because they love him. He too recognizes them, individually, and is willing to die—to lose his soul, his sense of identity, and his physical life—for them. This too is love.

The Old Testament sometimes characterizes God as the shepherd of his people. It also characterizes the Coming One as the shepherd who will gather and feed his people. A shepherd is not a hireling. The hireling is not concerned for the sheep; they do not matter to him. The shepherd on the other hand treats the sheep as his children; he loves them. They are in his care, not as an obligation or responsibility (though they are this) imposed on him, like the attendants in a preschool might be, but rather as those whom he personally loves. He is responsible for them for his own sake and for theirs, not because this responsibility is imposed on him. He is like a mother. In the Middle Ages abbots were often regarded as mothers, even though they were usually men (by the 1200s double monasteries in which abbesses ruled were mostly eliminated; see page 16 of Caroline Walker Bynum’s Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages, University of California Press, 1982).

The concept of God as Mother was already well established in the Old Testament (see, for example, Isaiah 49:1, 15; 66:11-13): God conceives the Israelites in his womb, bears them in his bosom, etc. The wisdom of God is a feminine principle (see Ecclesiasticus 24:24-26). The spirit of God is feminine as is the Shekinah, God’s presence. Jesus describes God as a mother hen who gathers her chicks under her wing. The “milk” of God of which the apostles speak implies the motherhood of God.

It was not a strange shift when the motherhood of Jesus is taken up by the (first and second century?) hymns in the Odes of Solomon, the apocryphal third-century Acts of Peter, and the writings of Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Irenaeus, John Chrysostom, Ambrose and Augustine. It was common in the early medieval period to refer to leaders in the church as mothers (the apostle Paul referred to himself as a nursing mother). Later medieval texts frequently referred to both bishops and abbots as mothers. Francis of Assisi also referred affectively to Christ as a mother and the brothers as mothers to each other. In the twelfth century it was particularly common, especially in the Cistercian tradition, to refer to Christ as mother. While we first see this metaphor in the writings of men, it was developed by women, by women in monastic life and by beguines and anchoresses.

It was probably the impersonalization that arose in the west as a result of the moneyed economy that suppressed this feminine language. Earlier, in the high Middle Ages the cultural influence of Muslim contact forced women out of institutional positions of authority, at least wherever men were involved. This oppression probably had the counter-effect of bringing feminine imagery and language to the surface as compensation. But the economic changes that preceded and gave rise to the Reformation and its iconoclasm excised it, putting men firmly in control of society. It was industrial civilization that finished the job by not only suppressing women but by forcing masculinization—and its characteristic impersonalization— on women when it brought them into men’s work space.

One can conceive of a shepherd as a male champion on behalf of the sheep and as a male provider, but women were also shepherds and the imagery of motherhood applies just as easily. Jesus is our champion, and he is so by laying down his life on the battlefield, but he is also our mother, calling us by name, carrying us in his arms, bringing us to open-air pastures and nurturing us with the grasses that grow under an open heaven—not controlling us or developing us by encouraging us to compete (as a man might tend to) but offering us freedom to grow in cooperation with others in community. When our shepherd lays down his life, it is not different than what a mother would do for her children.

When Jesus speaks of laying down his soul in death, he is not speaking of substitutionary atonement, i.e., laying down his life in exchange for the lives of others, as if it were a price paid to an extortioner. No, in this context it is to protect the sheep from an enemy (a wolf) who would devour them. It is an expression of love: the price Jesus would pay, not because it is the price that we owe, but because he loves us. No wolf has the power to overcome his love either. Nor does he owe the wolf anything (and neither do we), as if he has to pay the wolf off! By dying, Jesus overcomes the wolf, and in resurrection his love for us remains intact.

The theme of shepherd comes up again in the Gospel according to John. In chapter 21 Jesus charges Peter with the task of being a shepherd and of laying down his life for them. Peter is the first, in a sense, among the disciples, but only in the sense that he is first among equals. He is a model disciple however much he might be set apart in terms of his own calling. It really was his calling to be this model to others, as he himself said. Even in John’s gospel, as in Matthew’s, disciples are not only sheep, we are all called to be mothers to each other and to lay down our lives for the sheep. We all are called to be like Jesus—for he is the incarnation of the Word of the Father—enabled by his life within us—who is the Holy Spirit.

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