4th Sunday of Easter

April 21, 2002
Reading 2: 
Psalm 23
Reading 3: 
1 Peter 2:19-25 or Acts 2:42-47
Reading 4: 
John 10:1-10
By Ronald Farmer

I always enjoy it when a theme winds its way through the lectionary texts. Today is one of those happy occasions, for the image of shepherding appears in the Psalm, the Gospel, and the Epistolary lesson. The much-loved Twenty-third Psalm portrays Yahweh as the psalmist’s personal Shepherd. The Gospel of John describes Jesus as the Good Shepherd who supplies abundant life for his flock. First Peter approaches the image from the other side; sheep that had gone astray now have returned to the Shepherd of their souls. Although the theme is not overtly expressed in Acts, one can legitimately describe the text as picturing the earliest community of Christians shepherding one another.

Acts 2: 42-47
The second chapter of Acts concludes with a summary description of the church in its earliest days. Recalling that this is an idealized portrait sketched nearly half a century later can temper one’s understanding and use of the passage. As subsequent chapters disclose, the early church was not without its problems. Nevertheless, this idealized portrait can be helpful in assessing the health of the church (universal or local) today. Five characteristics are highlighted.

(1) Commitment to the apostles’ teaching (v. 42). Doubtless, this refers primarily to practical instructions regarding the implications of the gospel message for daily living, such as the teachings that comprise so much of the New Testament letters.

(2) Fellowship (vv. 42, 44-46). The New Testament word translated fellowship, koinonia, is difficult to express adequately in English: "communion," "partnership," "comradeship," and "sharing in common" may help flesh out the idea. Acts portrays the early church (like the Qumran community?) sharing not only in spiritual matters, such as worship and the Eucharist, but also in material matters, such as meals and financial needs. Clearly, there was active care for (shepherding of) one another on all levels of life.

(3) Prayer and communal worship (vv. 42, 46-47). Because prayer is a central theme of Luke-Acts, it is not surprisingly to see the early church emulating the prayer life of Jesus. Moreover, believers continued to meet in the temple (side by side with non-Christians!) as well as in private homes for communal worship.

(4) A sense of awe (v. 43). As the narrative of Acts demonstrates, the "wonders and signs" so characteristic of Jesus’ ministry continued in the ministry of the apostles. In the face of God’s mighty deeds, awe is the appropriate response.

(5) Steady growth (v. 47). Because the early church (as described in this passage) earned "the good will" of the larger community, people were attracted to their fellowship on a regular basis.

Psalm 23
That the Twenty-third Psalm has become associated primarily with death and dying is unfortunate. To be sure, the psalm is highly appropriate for such occasions. But the psalm is filled with images of life, not death —eating, drinking, guidance, and protection. Indeed, this beloved psalm paints one of the most vivid images of God in the entire Bible: "the LORD is my Shepherd."

The structure of the psalm is clear. First, the psalmist, speaking to a human audience, proclaims absolute confidence in God’s tender care (vv. 1-3). Next, the psalmist addresses God, describing what God has done (vv. 4-5). And finally, the psalmist again addresses a human audience with a stirring expression of confidence in continued divine favor (v. 6). Although the structure of the psalm is clear, there is considerable debate among scholars as to whether the psalm paints one or two portraits of God: God the Shepherd, and God the Gracious Host.

In the ancient Mediterranean world, gods and kings were frequently portrayed as shepherds of the people; thus, it is not surprising that Israel also conceived of Yahweh in terms of this beautiful image drawn from daily pastoral life. (Note: the use of the English word LORD in small caps indicates that the Hebrew text uses the personal name of God, Yahweh.) God blesses the psalmist with provision and protection. Although many scholars argue that the psalmist shifted to the gracious host imagery in vv. 5-6 (see below), it is possible to view the shepherd imagery extending throughout the entire psalm. As John H. Hayes (Preaching through the Christian Year: Year A [Philadelphia: Trinity Press, 1992] 170) noted: "Shepherds in the Middle East . . . used the expression ‘to set the table’ when referring to preparing fields for grazing. Such activities included uprooting poisonous weeds and thorns and clearing the area of the sheep’s enemies, such as snakes and scorpion’s nests. In the evening, as the sheep were corralled, the injured or sickly ones were separated from the others and treated with oil and a curative drink made of fermented materials and herbs sweetened with honey."

The role of host was most significant in the ancient world. A host was honor-bound to protect and care for anyone who came "under his roof," so to speak. Thus, even if the psalmist did introduce a new image for God in vv. 5-6, the twin themes of provision and protection continue to shine forth. Some of the scholars who believe that a shift in divine imagery occurs think that the psalm’s original life-setting was a thanksgiving ritual in the temple, which included a sacrificial meal consumed by the worshipers.

A few of the psalm’s well-known expressions merit special attention. First, "the LORD is my shepherd" (v. 1). Elsewhere in the biblical tradition, God is thought of as shepherd of the flock collectively. The divine shepherd imagery is given its most personal expression in this psalm.

Second, "in a consumer-oriented society, it is extremely difficult to hear the simple but radical message of Psalm 23: God is the only necessity of life! While v. 1 is best translated ‘I shall lack nothing,’ the traditional translation preserved by the NIV and the NRSV is particularly appropriate in a culture that teaches people to want everything. Driven by greed rather than need, we can hardly imagine having only the necessities of life—food, drink, shelter/protection. Clever advertisers have succeeded in convincing us that what former generations considered incredible luxuries are now basic necessities. To say in our prosperous context that God is the only necessity of life sounds hopelessly quaint and naïve. . . . to make Psalm 23 our words is to affirm that we do not need to worry about our lives (or our deaths). God will provide, and God’s provision is grounded in the reality of God’s reign. The proper response to the simple good news of Psalm 23 . . . is to trust God. But this is precisely the rub. In a secular society, we are encouraged to trust first ourselves and to work first to secure our own lives and futures. Psalm 23 thus challenges us to affirm with the psalmist: ‘The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.’ To say that means to live humbly and gratefully as a child of God" (J. Clinton McCann, Jr., The Book of Psalms, in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 4 [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996] 769).

Third, "he restores my soul" (v. 3) might be better translated "he keeps me alive," through the provision of grass and water (v. 2) and through being led in the right paths so that danger is avoided (v. 3). All this is done "for his name’s sake" (v. 3), that is, in keeping with God’s fundamental character. As will be seen below, two aspects of God’s character are "goodness and mercy" (v. 6).

Fourth, the expression "the valley of the shadow of death" (v. 4, KJV) is difficult to translate. The Hebrew word underlying "the shadow of death" may be understood as a compound noun with the literal meaning of "very deep shadow" or "deep darkness" as is reflected in the NRSV rendering, "the darkest valley." But in favor of the traditional translation, the expression can also evoke the threat of death, as in Job 10:21-22. In either case, the psalmist has no fear because of the Shepherd’s presence. The Shepherd’s "rod" was a club used to defend the sheep from predators, and the "staff" is the Shepherd’s crook used to guide erring sheep.

Fifth, God’s "goodness" and "mercy" (Hebrew = hesed, a significant term variously translated "mercy," "loving kindness," "steadfast love") "pursue" (not merely "follow," as in the KJV) the psalmist all the days of his life (v. 6). This affirmation seems all the bolder when the reader recalls that this happens in full view of the psalmist’s enemies (v. 5).

Sixth, "and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever" (v. 6). The KJV rendering "forever" misses the significance of the Hebrew, which literally says "for length of days." Hence, the NRSV translates the expression "my whole life long." Scholars argue as to whether the mention of "the house of the LORD" (i.e., Temple) indicates that the psalmist was a member of the Temple personnel, a person who had taken refuge in the Temple, or simply a worshiper who envisioned future trips to the Temple as an expression of a daily walk with the Shepherd.

A final note: the mention of the Temple in v. 6 adds communal depth to what is otherwise a highly individualistic psalm.

1 Peter 2: 19-25
In omitting 2:18 from the reading, the compilers of the Lectionary ripped the text from its original context, no doubt in order to make it more applicable (and palatable?) to modern readers. The resulting overall theme is: the proper Christian response to undeserved treatment, especially to undeserved suffering (a theme that is treated at length in 3:8-22). While that may be the best application of the passage to modern readers, the original setting concerned the behavior of Christian slaves toward their masters, even their abusive masters. Indeed, 2:18-25 is part of a larger passage (2:13-3:12 and 5:1-5) instructing readers in their proper response to those "in authority": government leaders (2:13-17), slave owners (2:18-25), husbands (3:1-7), and church leaders (5:1-5). Scholars have labeled this and similar passages (Col 3:18-4:1; Eph 5:21-6:9; and materials dispersed throughout the Pastorals) "household codes."

Apparently, early Christian writers modeled this literary form on the writings of Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and Hellenistic Jewish authors Philo and Josephus. Indeed, the household code model may have been adopted as a means to respond to the dangerous charge that Christianity threatened the accepted social order. Just as is reflected in today’s conservative political rhetoric ("traditional family values"), so too Roman politicians and social critics were proclaiming that the stability of the state is dependent upon the proper management of the household. (In the first-century world, the household included slaves and others under the authority of the patriarch.) Any new movement that preached freedom from worldly structures and obedience to a higher authority was immediately suspect.

Lectionary notes do not provide space for a discussion of the role Christianity played in the eventual abolition of slavery in most locations and in most of its forms. (As the qualifiers imply, slavery still exists in today’s world.) Such a discussion would also need to admit that slavery’s proponents strengthened their arguments with citations from the biblical household codes. Suffice it to say, other New Testament texts set forth principles that eventually overcame the household codes that had led some Christians to support (or at least to acquiesce to) the institution of slavery. Especially relevant is Philemon; although this brief letter does not confront slavery head on, several of its carefully worded statements create tension that can only be resolved if Philemon frees Onesimus. Can one own a brother?

According to vv. 19-20, it is to one’s credit if one endures unjustified suffering; this is not the case if the suffering is the result of wrongdoing. The expression "being aware of God" (v. 19, NRSV) may indicate that the suffering is the result of the slave doing God’s will, although it more likely means that the commitment to enduring unjustified suffering arises from the slave’s "God-consciousness." Indeed, Christians (and not just those who are slaves) have an example (v. 21) of this behavior in the person of Jesus of Nazareth who suffered unjustly at the hands of "the authorities." (The Greek word hypogrammos, translated "example," refers to a pattern a child traces over in learning how to write. Observe the close connection to the expression "follow in his steps.")

Jesus’ unjust suffering (vv. 22-25) is painted in terms echoing Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, especially Isa 53:4-12. Two things are highlighted in v. 23. First, Jesus practiced what he preached: non-retaliation (Matt 5:39). Second, Jesus placed his trust in a higher court (God) to judge him justly. Clearly, Jesus has left his followers a radical, alternative example to follow.

In the closing verse (v. 25) the sheep and shepherd motif (so dominant in Psalm 23 and John 10) emerges. Like formerly straying sheep, the readers have returned to the Shepherd of their souls.

Note: The statements "Christ suffered for you" (v. 21) and "he himself bore our sins in his body . . . so that we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed" (v. 24) are frequently understood in terms of the theory of vicarious atonement. For a discussion of problems arising from this theory, the reader is directed to last week’s lectionary notes on 1 Peter 1:17-23. In contrast, these statements could be understood from the perspective of the atonement of victory theory: "Christ vanquished sin through his fidelity on the cross" (David L. Bartlett, The First Letter of Peter, in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 12 [Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998] 283). Compare Col 2:13-15.

John 10: 1-10
Although there is some debate, most commentators see John 10:1-21 as continuing the discussion begun in chapter nine. (Some scholars connect it with 10:22-42 instead.) The Evangelist used the expression "very truly, I tell you" to divide 10:1-18 into two units: vv. 1-6 and vv. 7-18. Today’s Gospel lesson concludes with v. 10, just before the second of two "I am" statements in chapter ten: "I am the Gate" (vv. 7, 9) and "I am the Good Shepherd" (v. 11, 14). Although the lesson ends before the second statement, it is anticipated nonetheless.

Underlying vv. 1-6 are first-century shepherding practices. The flocks of a number of shepherds were corralled together overnight for ease of protection. In the morning, the gatekeeper would open the gate for each of the shepherds, who would then call his sheep by name. Recognizing the voice of their shepherd, the sheep would follow him out of the sheepfold to the day’s pasture. As the text indicates, sheep would not follow the voice of a stranger.

Clearly, vv. 1-6 deals with the leadership of God’s people. Reflecting a long tradition in the Hebrew Bible, leaders are described as shepherds of God’s flock. Set in sharp contrast are false leaders, described as thieves, bandits, and strangers. Although the false leaders are not specified, doubtless Ezekiel 34 forms the background of Jesus’ "figure of speech" (v. 6). When read in light of John 9, it is apparent that the Pharisees are Jesus’ target. Their attitude and conduct toward the blind man reveal that they do not have the best interest of the "flock" in mind. Jesus’ "pastoral" dealings with the blind man stand in sharp relief. Jesus shepherded the man.

Although some commentators view vv. 7-18 as an explanation or interpretation of vv. 1-5, most do not. True, Jesus continued with pastoral imagery, but rather than explaining vv. 1-5, he moved on to new ideas built around two "I am" statements.

In vv. 1-5, the gate primarily indicated who has authorized access to the sheep (shepherds, not thieves and bandits). In vv. 7-10 the focus is on what the gate provides for the sheep. Those who came before Jesus (thieves and bandits = messianic pretender or false leaders in general?) did not provide for the sheep’s needs. Jesus does: (1) salvation; (2) freedom to go in and out and find pasture; and (3) abundant life.