Telling the Story:
There’s an echo of another story within this story, and if I skip to the dialog and ignore the setting of the story, I’d miss something big.
John sets this conversation in the context of the Jews honoring Hanukkah. This is a big deal! Hanukkah commemorates the Maccabees re-dedication of the temple which Antiochus IV Epiphanes had flagrantly defiled. In an uproar over Antiochus IV’s actions, the Jews, led by the Maccabees, revolted against the Seleucids, kicked them out of Judea in 164 B.C. and regained political control of Judea for the first time since 586 B.C. Hanukkah celebrates a huge moment in Jewish history!
The Jews asked Jesus, “how long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah (and, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that you are), tell us plainly (Jn. 10:24).”
There’s a bigger context for the question. Will Jesus be their kingly messiah? Will he be a military leader like the Maccabees and lead a revolt? Will he kick Rome out of Judea? Will God support him in that revolutionary task?
In a sense, they attempted to pigeonhole Jesus with their agenda for the messiah, rather than seeing what Jesus was up to on his mission. They had a job description for messiah, and they were split on the question of Jesus being God’s candidate for the position (and probably about whether the position should even be out for hire).
Plus, Jewish leaders already wanted to expel anyone from the synagogue who claimed Jesus was the Messiah (Jn. 9:22). Why would Jesus as Messiah be problematic? A militaristic messiah meant problems with Rome, and Rome’s way of dealing with local revolts was obliterating troublesome towns into mere rubble. Jesus as a military messiah meant a threat to political security and their relatively comfortable ways of life. In addition, Jesus already made it clear he wasn’t someone they could control; he challenged them.
On the one hand, Jesus just healed this guy who was born blind (Jn 9:16). Maybe this indicated he was from God? On the other, he did it on the Sabbath, so clearly there must be something wrong with that (at least in the eyes of the Pharisees). Maybe his ramblings about sheep are an indication he’s crazy or demon-possessed. But others think he sounds sane, and how could Jesus restore a man’s sight if he wasn’t from God (Jn. 10:19-20)?
So, the evidence of his work seems good, but his timing (healing on the Sabbath) and teaching challenge their conceptions about the way God and messiah were supposed to work.
They wanted certainty before following. Was Jesus worth the risk? Or should they just try to squelch this potential threat to their peace of mind? Was hanging on to their position and status worth more than the good work Jesus was doing in their midst?
Jesus didn’t offer the kind of certainty they wanted. He didn’t offer doctrinal certainty to his hearers or a definitive rope to hang him with, instead he reminds them of what they’ve seen and heard and still don’t believe. They don’t respond to his voice because they aren’t his sheep. Ouch. Jesus doesn’t kowtow to their agenda or stoop to prove himself on their terms. He didn’t take up their job description.
Instead, he pointed out the difference between this group and his followers. His sheep listen to his voice; each sheep turns its head at the sound of his voice. Jesus knows them — not just as a collective whole, but individually. And because of that intimate relationship, Jesus’ sheep follow him. Being in Jesus’ herd involves a dynamic of listening to Jesus, being known by him and responding to what’s been heard.
And each of those is a vital part of relationship. Listening teaches us who Jesus is. Being known by Jesus offers security; we’re not listening and responding in a vacuum. We’re listening and responding to the One who sees us in our entirety and loves us. And relationship requires response: to listen and be known, but not respond, suggests an unwillingness to be in relationship.
Jesus offered relational commitment. He promised instead that he will never abandon his sheep. No one could snatch them away. Take that, those who already felt threatened by the Jesus movement! You’re not my sheep, and regardless of your efforts, it’s ultimately impossible to steal my people either. God led the people to Jesus, and it’s by God’s own power people stay.
And then Jesus adds fuel to the fire by declaring he and the Father are one.
While the temple had long been the symbol of God’s presence with his people, Jesus shifts the emphasis here. Jesus is the sign of God’s presence. God gave him the authority to do the good works, and God and Jesus are one.
To Jesus’ audience, that was not a given; it was shocking, blasphemy even. A capital offense. Those were inflammatory words. And they start to pick up rocks in response to Jesus’ claim (Jn 10:31).
Reflecting on the Story:
As I read this week, I found myself tempted to launch right into the part about how Jesus’ sheep listen to his voice and no one can snatch them out of his hand. I wanted to land there in the place of nice feelings and warmth.
Instead, I found myself challenged to think differently about this passage. Jesus was essentially directing this speech to an audience uncertain at best and hostile at worst. In this speech, he wasn’t directing conversation to his disciples or his sheep.
And, I find myself wondering, how does the intended audience impact the meaning here?
Further, I found myself challenged by the example of the Pharisees and religious leaders. John made the Pharisees (at least in Jn. 9-10) hostile characters to Jesus. As the reader learns of Jesus and sees the Pharisees’ opposition to Jesus, he or she is supposed to align themselves on Jesus’ side. John’s point of writing this gospel was to help the the reader know Jesus is the Messiah (Jn. 20:31) and find life in him. Clearly the Pharisees, as John depicts them, were wrong .
And so, as I read, I want to align myself with the Jesus groupies. I want to put myself in the “in” camp. I want to point my finger at the folks who don’t get Jesus or don’t like Jesus. I want to see myself as better. And John wants us to do better, but I can only do better if I learn from the example before me.
This time around I found myself thinking: maybe I need to pay more attention to the antagonists. Not as straw men or scapegoats, but maybe their issues might tell me something about me and Jesus, too.
What kind of false job descriptions have I written for Jesus? In what ways am I guilty of wanting a different kind of messiah? Or at least one who doesn’t shake up my stability and security?
And those are sobering, gritty reflections.
Lord, have mercy.