October 31, 2014

The Shepherd-King in the Temple

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In the liturgical calendar, today is “Good Shepherd Sunday.” Here are a few exegetical and contextual notes about today’s Gospel text.

I love beautiful church buildings. In my own faith journey, my imagination has been captured by the wonder of natural light filtered through stained glass windows, the “lift” felt as one gazes up toward soaring ceilings, the solidity and weight of stone walls and wooden furniture, the soft light of candles, the brilliant colors of banners, vestments and symbols of faith. I am sad for those who have never known the power of such surroundings and how they can aid faith.

But I also know and accept that these are not ultimate things. If Paul and Silas can offer worship in a Philippian jail cell at midnight, then one can worship anywhere. Though I love, respect, and treasure good church architecture and accouterments, I do not put my trust in them for the ultimate well being of my soul or the community of faith.

A key to today’s Gospel passage is its setting: “At that time the Feast of the Dedication took place at Jerusalem; it was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple in the portico of Solomon” (John 10:22-23, NASB).

The Feast of the Dedication was a holiday to remember the re-dedication of the Temple after the victory of Judas Maccabeus about two hundred years before the ministry of Jesus — today it is known as Hanukkah. In his commentary on John’s gospel, Fr. Francis Moloney remarks, “In celebrating Dedication, ‘the Jews’ pride themselves on their reconsecrated Temple, the physical evidence of their belonging to God, and, in some way, of God’s belonging to them.”

The word “temple” in Hebrew is equivalent to “palace.” It represents not only a place of worship for the people, but the residence of the King. In Israel, the King was known as “the Shepherd” of the nation. The image of a shepherd tending the flock was a part of Israel’s imagination from the days of the patriarchs, and all of their great leaders were depicted in this fashion. Of course, the ultimate Shepherd was Yahweh himself, as David confessed in Psalm 23 and as the prophets proclaimed (see Ezekiel 34).

One should keep these connections in mind when reading John 10: Shepherd = King = Temple (palace).

Each year, on this Sunday we remember that it was right there, in the palace of the great King, that Jesus proclaimed himself to be the Shepherd of Israel, the one who would gather his sheep and feed and protect them. Indeed, he would give “eternal life” (the life of the age to come) to them. At the culmination of his talk, he even proclaimed, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30).

In other words, right there in the portico of Solomon, Jesus claimed oneness with the Glorious One the Jewish people believed inhabited the Temple, the One to whom they came to pray and offer sacrifices. On the very occasion when they were celebrating that magnificent building, Jesus stood in their midst and claimed to be the Lord of the Temple, the Shepherd of his people.

What is most important, Jesus said on that day, is not the Temple itself, but listening to the voice of the King.

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