John: Jesus Replaces Moses

The readings for Sunday, April 17, 2016, Fourth Sunday of Easter, Cycle C, are
Acts 13:14, 43-52; Revelation 7:9, 14b-17; and John 10:27-30.

The very brief gospel reading of this Sunday is a sequel to and summary of the Parable of the Good Shepherd. Between the presentation of the parable and its summary John quotes various statements connected with the parable. The parable had pointed out that the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The expression, “lays down his life” is especially appropriate because a Palestinian shepherd brought the sheep into the fold or pen at night. Then he himself lay down across the opening of the pen to protect the sheep from thieves and robbers even at the cost of his life. The sayings John attributes to Jesus after the parable flow from the parable: “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life, that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own will. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. This command I have received from my Father.”

John’ catechetical affirmation that Jesus had power over his own life — to lay it down and to take it up again — is an implicit claim that Jesus is God. Only God has supreme authority over life. If Jesus can restore to himself the life that he freely laid down for his sheep, then he can do the same for the sheep and do so permanently. ” In the context of today’s Gospel John points out that Jesus’ statements caused “a division among the Jews.” John writes on two levels — the time of Jesus in the thirties of the first Christian century, and the time of John in the nineties of the first century. This “division among the Jews” is about the identity of Jesus and is true of both times. Debates between Jesus and his critics became debates between Jews and Jews, that is, between Jews who claimed Moses as God’s ultimate revealer and Christians who thought of themselves as the real Jews and claimed Jesus as the replacement or perfection of Moses, even as Son of God and God.
There are two important metaphors used in today’s Gospel. The first: voice, as in “My sheep hear my voice.” John placed two very brief opening parables before the Parable of the Good Shepherd. The metaphor of voice is woven into both parables. In the parable of the door and the gatekeeper we read, “The one who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens because he knows his voice….” In the second parable it is no longer the doorkeeper or gatekeeper who recognizes the voice of the true shepherd, but the sheep themselves know his voice, “The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name… They follow him because they know his voice. They do not follow strangers because they do not know their voice.”

What is John’s catechesis here? The time is the end of the first century. The temple had been destroyed in 70 A.D. Before the destruction of the temple, the two pillars of Jewish religion were temple and Torah (revelation through Moses in the first five books of the Bible). Torah alone remained and the voice of God spoke in it through Moses. John’s community claimed that Jesus was not only the replacement/perfection of the temple, but also the perfection/replacement of Moses (Torah), and therefore the ultimate voice of God. For John’s catechesis the great scribes who interpreted and taught Torah were the voice of strangers. Christians did not reject Moses but claimed that Moses had been surpassed by Jesus, as we read in John 1:17, “The Torah was given through Moses. Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” The voice of Jesus Christ as interpreted in the Gospel of John was therefore the voice which the sheep know and follow.

The second metaphor used in today’s Gospel is the hand as in “No one can take them (the sheep) out of my hand, and no one can take them out of the Father’s hand.” Biblically speaking, “hand” is often used as a symbol of power. The usual English translation, “They did not keep in mind his power….” In New Testament Greek, Hebrews 10:31, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands (cheiras) of the living God,” which obviously refers to falling into the power of the living God. God as pure spirit does not have hands as parts of a body. There are many other phrases that use hand as a symbol for the power of God. Therefore a good translation of the above quote from this Sunday’s gospel could be, “No one can take them out of my power, and no one can take them out of the Father’s power” John proclaims the same function for the hand of Jesus and the hand of the Father — the security of the members of the flock.