22At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, 23and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. 24So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” 25Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; 26but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. 27My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. 30The Father and I are one.”
What I am Learning:
Before I go on, please read this text one more time and listen for all the stuff that the dominant theologies of our day, using our voice, adds to the text.
Go ahead and do it.
Let's start from verse 24. The word "Jews." Often people read into this anti-semitism on the part of the writer of John. Jesus was a Jew after all! There is no place for anti-semitism in the church. The word "jews" here is not a reference to all Jewish people as a race or a religion. It is a reference for the Jewish leadership in and around Judea. The word should be translated "Judeans" or more precisely the "leaders of the people of Israel who were forced to collaborate with the Roman Empire or be killed." But of course this is too hard to put into a translation of the Bible... I guess that's what we have pastors and Biblical scholars for.
25Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me;
They ask if he is the Messiah or not. The word "messiah" means "anointed one." It refers to the belief in Israel in Jesus' day that God would send a prophet, priest and king to free them from occupation and restore them to be the blessing to all people God called them to be. The messiah was generally assumed to bring this about using military means. If Jesus had said, "Yes I am the messiah!" he would have been arrested on the spot as plotting the overthrow of the Romans in Palestine. Jesus answered this by pointing to all the things he was doing: Healing the sick, cleansing the lepers, making the blind to see, the lame to walk, preaching good news to the poor, and raising the dead. All of these were expected of the messiah.
It's just that Jesus didn't use military conquest. He actually refused it as a method for bringing peace.
That doesn't mean that he was not seeking the restoration of Israel and the end to the occupation. He chose to use non-violent means to free his people from the grip of their fear and the Romans from their fear-making.
26but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. 7My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.28I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.
The image of the sheep and the shepherd is not and accident in this passage. It is not a cute and cuddly image of Jesus and us, his disciples. Nor is it an image of exclusion of competition between religions.
This image is from a passage in Ezekiel 33-34 in which the leaders of Israel are taken to task for abusing their positions of leadership to exploit their people. The Judeans that came to question Jesus were probably among the top 10% of the wealthy in Palestine. They set up a system of religion that demanded that people pay high costs for sacrifices which were required for forgiveness, pay a temple tax, and could only legitimately observe the Passover in Jerusalem. These beings created a religious company store and benefited financially from it.
Ezekiel 34: 1-6
The word of the Lord came to me: 2Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. 4You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. 5So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. 6My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them.
Jesus uses this image to accuse these leaders of Israel of being false shepherds who make the sheep, who they should be protecting, vulnerable to the "wild animals."
28I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. 30The Father and I are one.”
Eternal life is not a reference to heaven - the place we go when we die. It refers to a life that is sourced from God's own eternal life. In these verses Jesus continues to refer to the Ezekiel 34:
I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. 24And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken.
25 I will make with them a covenant of peace and banish wild animals from the land, so that they may live in the wild and sleep in the woods securely. 26I will make them and the region around my hill a blessing; and I will send down the showers in their season; they shall be showers of blessing. 27The trees of the field shall yield their fruit, and the earth shall yield its increase. They shall be secure on their soil; and they shall know that I am the Lord, when I break the bars of their yoke, and save them from the hands of those who enslaved them. 28They shall no more be plunder for the nations, nor shall the animals of the land devour them; they shall live in safety, and no one shall make them afraid. 29I will provide for them splendid vegetation, so that they shall no more be consumed with hunger in the land, and no longer suffer the insults of the nations. 30They shall know that I, the Lord their God, am with them, and that they, the house of Israel, are my people, says the Lord God. 31You are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture,* and I am your God, says the Lord God.
When Jesus says that "I and the Father are one" is he is saying that he is the good shepherd, the one in whom Jesus' disciples find God's presence among them, and among us.
We often take passages of scripture, remove them from their narrative, cultural and historical contexts and then extrapolate "eternal truths from them."
In this passage, Jesus was confronted by the ruling elites of his day. He used the image of shepherd to challenge them with their exploitation of their people. By living as a shepherd who loved the hated Samaritans and was willing to eat with the poor and marginalized people he reveals the true heart of God.
This true heart of God, while willing to call these religious leaders out on their behavior, is also full of love for them.