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Living Easter: The Good Shepherd

The Gospel of John is dramatically different from the other three Gospels — and it may have a particular message for we need to hear now, during this dramatically different moment in history.

First, some background.

The Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke are often referred to as the synoptic Gospels (from the Greek synopsis, “having a similar point of view, looking alike) because they are so similar. It is not uncommon to find stories that are almost word for word the same in two or even three of the synoptic Gospels.

But then we have the Gospel of John.

Although there is great divergence of opinion as to when the Gospel was written, with some claiming it was written at the beginning of the 2nd century, all scholars agree that it is later than the synoptic Gospels. That means its author was writing for Christians who had not known Jesus — and perhaps not known any of the 12 apostles, either. By the time of John’s Gospel some major events had rocked Christianity: the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, the movement of Christianity from the Jewish into the Greco-Roman world with a great increase of converts from paganism; and, not least, the beginnings of persecutions which would go on sporadically for three centuries. There was also a subtle shift in the questions that believers were asking. Their concern was moving from what Jesus did to the meaning of what Jesus did (and who he was).

 All of which has bearing on what John’s writing. For John, Jesus is the great, divine teacher—the Word of God—come into the world to bring eternal life though his teachings, death, resurrection and exaltation. Whereas the synoptics place great stress on the miracles of Jesus, often recounting one after another without comment, John always uses a miracle (or as John calls them “a sign”) as an opportunity for Jesus to give a lengthy teaching on what the sign means.

As door to the sheepfold, Jesus protects the sheep from marauders—human and animal. We are safe when we go through the door Jesus offers us. This is something so many of us need to remember during this challenging, difficult time.

Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

New Testament scholars sometimes speak of “low” and “high” Christologies in the Gospels. Although this can be overdone at times, it basically means that any given evangelist may stress more the humanity or the divinity of Jesus. This is, of course, purely a matter of emphasis since all four evangelists hold that Christ is both human and divine. However, using this particular tool, it is obvious that John’s Gospel has a “high” Christology. This is especially clear in the second half of the Gospel, dealing with the last days of Jesus’ life. The Last Supper in John’s Gospel is longer than this account in all the other Gospels combined. Jesus is in control and already speaks as the Risen Lord: “Now has the Son of Man been glorified and in him God has been glorified” (John13:31). At his arrest, his enemies “fall to the ground” (18:6) at his response “I am he!”

These aspects of John’s Gospel come together in Sunday’s reading.  Jesus speaks of being the “door of the sheepfold.” Just one verse after this passage concludes, he will say “I am the Good Shepherd.” Something very important in going on here that is not obvious in English. Several times when Jesus describes himself in John’s Gospel, he uses the Greek expression egō eimi, “I am.” In normal Greek eimi, the verb “am” alone would have sufficed. Yet Jesus regularly uses the full expression — and, indeed, the Gospel insists on it.

The ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, recounts the revelation of God’s name to Moses, a name so sacred that no Jew will ever pronounce it. That revelation to Moses in the Greek text is “I am (egō eimi) who am/is.” For Greek speaking Jews at the time of Jesus, “I am” was that sacred name. That Jesus is stating his divinity is clear in his grammatically odd statement in 8:58 “before Abraham ever was, I am).” His hearers immediately understood this and tried to stone him for blasphemy.

Jesus uses “I am” several times in the Gospel: as the way, the truth and the life; as the gate to the sheepfold, as the good shepherd, as the true bread come down from heaven, etc. The presence of the “I am” links these things closely with the divinity of Jesus. It is important to note that in many of the “I am” sayings—especially those just mentioned—Jesus is describing something that he does for or that he gives his followers.

 Although it may seem strange today when Jesus says twice “I am the door (to the sheepfold),” it is very pertinent to the world in which we are living. As door to the sheepfold, Jesus protects the sheep from marauders—human and animal. We are safe when we go through the door Jesus offers us. This is something so many of us need to remember during this challenging, difficult time.

Perhaps never in any of our lives have we experienced so many fears: an invisible, merciless virus, the collapse of economies, a restructuring of society whose end results are unknown. Anyone who is paying attention is concerned, if not downright frightened. In the Gospel reading this Sunday Jesus, speaking as the risen Lord, is offering himself to us as protection and safety.

The exact contours of that protection and safety may not yet be totally clear. However, with faith and trust in the risen Christ, the good shepherd, we welcome and head towards the safety he offers us in the Gospel.

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