Yes, it’s Easter 4 and another sheepy set of readings, so here is is a link to a load of ovine resources.
Below is a reflection on one of the oft-overlooked verses from John 10:1-10, and below that your liturgy resources.
Between the Sound-Bites
This passage is a poster printer’s delight. It is chock-a-block full of pithy one-liners just right for putting on inspirational images of sunsets, or perhaps artfully arranged rustic scenes with fluffy white lambs in the distance: “I am the gate”, “My Sheep hear my voice,” “life in all its fullness,” and so on.
But have you noticed that sneaky little verse hiding between the sound-bites? It’s probably the only verse in this passage that’s not famous, but I really think it should be, because it applies to all of us. Or at least it applies to me. You’ll have to decide whether it applies to you or not. It’s verse 6:
“Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.”
Jesus often used figures of speech when he spoke – any GCSE English teacher would have been proud of the similes and metaphors – but his disciples didn’t always get it straight away.
We are used to the metaphors of shepherd and sheep meaning Jesus and his followers. We’ve seen the posters of good-looking bloke with beard and long hair and a sheep over his shoulders. We’ve read the other bits of John’s gospel where Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd”, “My sheep hear my voice,” and we know what he’s getting at.
But his first disciples didn’t have the advantage of Bible study notes to explain. They had to work it out themselves.
And that’s the whole point.
When I’m not writing, I’m a maths teacher, and one of my most memorable classroom moments came from years ago, teaching a small class of low-attainers. The remedial class, we’d have called it when I was at school.
The kids were doing an exercise where they picked a number, any number, multiplied it by, say, five then took the result and divided it by five.
8 x 5 = 40
40 ÷ 5 = 8
They did this over and over and eventually one lad had an epiphany. “It’s always the same!” he said. “It doesn’t matter what number you pick, you always end up back where you started. It’s like timesing and dividing undo each other. You don’t need to bother doing either of them!” I called him up to the board and had him explain it to the rest of the class and the golden aura of accomplishment beaming from that lad’s face has fuelled forty years of teaching.
He was in bottom set. He’d spent a decade in school not understanding things, having everyone else ‘get it’ while he hadn’t, and now he was the one who understood. He glowed with pride, and quite right too.
But the important thing, the thing that made it his knowledge, was that I didn’t tell him. He worked it out on his own.
He didn’t copy down a statement from the board, “Multiplication and division are inverse operations, meaning that multiplying a number by a certain value then dividing the result by the same value is equivalent to multiplying (or dividing) by the multiplicative identity.” Factually correct, but useless. Worse than useless.
Working it out himself took longer, to be sure, but he got it. He really got it and I’m so proud of him for that.
Jesus often didn’t give simple responses to questions. He didn’t write the answer on the board. He used parables and images and lots of people didn’t get it at first. This wasn’t a mistake or lack of communication skill. It was deliberate. Jesus wanted his followers to work it out for themselves. He wanted them to mull over the stories and roll the images around in their heads to get the full meaning so that the understanding would be theirs and would embed itself deeply.
Poetry works the same way, communication more by tip-toeing around the circumference of a topic than could be gained by crashing straight in along the radius. If I said, “I walked around somewhat aimlessly, feeling isolated and adrift,” that would give you information about my occupation and mood. But if I said, “I wandered lonely as a cloud,” you gain a picture of my situation and state of mind that is much richer than the bald facts can communicate. And you might remember it.
And so we find John’s little aside, tucked between the sound-bits of Jesus’s speech. “Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying.”
Jesus had been talking of gates and sheepfolds and of good and bad shepherds, and the crowd were scratching their collective heads. “Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying.”
Man of us might respond, “That wasn’t very clever of them. I know exactly what it means. I learned about this in Sunday School,” or “My Bible notes tell me at the bottom of the page.”
But let’s slow down a bit. Bible notes and commentaries are great, but Jesus intended that we’d ponder his words, we’d slosh them around in our heads, we’d chew them like a cow chews grass and get all the juice out of them. The ready-made answers from a book are fine but, like my lad in the maths class, we’ll get so much more out of it if we work some stuff out for ourselves.
Now I’m not saying don’t use commentaries. It’s great to benefit from other people’s wisdom, like how we learn to read and write from a teacher; we’re not expected to invent it from scratch. But the big stuff, the important stuff, is so much better if we learn it with our hearts as well as our heads. So may I encourage you, as I encourage myself, to not assume we know all there is to know about Jesus’s parables and word-pictures. Let’s let them tumble around our brains, chew them over, and find what treasures might be hidden between the sound-bites.
You can buy Nathan Greene’s Good Shepherd print at nathangreene.com
Confession and Absolution
Lord Jesus, Good Shepherd of the sheep,
we confess that we have gone astray.
We have failed to heed your voice
and have listened instead to the voices of self-interest and ease.
Good Shepherd, forgive us.
We have failed to follow your leading
and have wandered instead where we know we should not.
Good Shepherd, forgive us.
We have failed to be satisfied with your provision
and have yearned instead for that which fades like dry grass.
Good Shepherd, forgive us.
Forgive us, Lord, we pray,
and restore our souls.
As God’s forgiven people we proclaim:
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow us all our days,
and we shall dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.
Blessing and Dismissal
May you follow your shepherd
in green pastures.
May you rest beside still waters
and lack for nothing.
May you walk in right paths
and know the comfort and protection of God.
And may the blessing of the Lord,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
fill and overflow your soul
and spread to those around you.
Go now, with your Good Shepherd guiding
this day and always.
2 thoughts on “Between the Sound-Bites Jn 10”
Jesus used the teaching method most rabbis of his day did, sometimes called the Socratic method, of asking questions causing listeners to think about things. He often answered a question with yet another question
Yes, you’re right Les. It’s a great teaching method and I use it myself frequently. It’s much more effective than spoon-feeding answers (if occasionally a little frustrating for the listeners) Thanks for your helpful comment 🙂