Friday, May 4, 2012


This past Tuesday the gospel reading at mass was from John Chapter 10 (The “Good Shepherd Chapter"). The passage begins with a phrase that most of us probably wouldn’t notice at all: “It was the feast of the Dedication at Jerusalem” (10:22). But we should be very careful: John doesn’t throw in details like this one for no reason. We need to ask why John has Jesus teaching in the temple at the time of “the Feast of the Dedication.” There are actually lots of scriptural allusions behind this choice of a feast (e.g. that it celebrates God’s faithfulness or his presence among us in the temple). But one aspect really hit home with me; it has to do with the idea of “messiah.”


The story of the feast of the Dedication begins about 175 years before Christ’s birth when Antiochus Epiphanes ascended to the throne in Syria. He immed- iately set about consolidating his authority in outlying areas such as Judea, where he attacked Jewish religious practices, declaring that everyone was required to worship Zeus Olympios. In 167 b.c.e. a sacrifice to Zeus was offered in Jerusalem’s Temple on a pagan altar built over the altar of holocausts. The Jews called this altar the “abomination of desolation” or “the desolating sacrilege” (1 Macc 1:59; cf. Dan 11:31). These events led to the revolt initiated by an elderly Jewish Priest, Mattathias. Through a remarkable series of events and fortunate coincidences his son Judas eventually overcame the Syrian forces in 164 B.C.E. (described in 1 Macc 2:1 through 4:35) Judas and his brothers then faced the sober task of restoring the Temple to the true worship of God. The Temple compound was in shambles, desecrated by the idolatry of the Syrians. The Maccabees and their followers quickly cleansed the altars and restored the holy furnishings. The Feast of the Dedication was an eight-day festival of lights (in Hebrew, Hanukkah) to celebrate the Maccabees’ rededication of the altar and re-consecration of the temple in 164 B.C. (1 Macc 4:52-59) after their successful revolt.


Triumph of Judas Macchabeus -Rubens
Nicknamed “Maccabeus,” “the Hammer.” Judas Maccabeus was probably the best example of an almost-messiah, someone whose military exploits against the foreign occupation forces actually succeeded for a couple of years. Ever since his time devout Jews had been celebrating his glorious exploits by commemorating the day that he cleansed the temple of pagan defilement and rededicated it to God. At the time of Christ the desire for a messiah who would deliver the Jews from the Romans had reached a fever pitch. Remember how people hurried into the desert of Judea to the banks of the Jordan to check out John the Baptist and asking him “Are you the messiah?” As you read the following passage, then, keep in mind that “the feast of the Dedication” was a celebration of a military deliverer’s glorious victory over the pagans, and that many of Jesus’s Jewish hearers were eagerly looking for a messiah, a new military King David, a more successful version of Judah the Hammer.

At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’ Jesus answered, ‘I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.’ (John 10:22-30)


Good Shepherd - Murillo
What struck me was the contrast between the popular notion of the expected messiah and Jesus’s understanding of his role as messiah. “How long will you keep us in suspense?” The people ask, “If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe.” He had revealed himself to them as messiah who would bring healing to the sick and peace to the distressed, forgiveness to sinners and welcome to outcasts. This was, of course, not the messiah they were waiting for. Jesus preached “love your enemies,” whereas Judas the Hammer had kicked the Syrians right out of the country! “The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.” Doesn’t this imply that Jesus’s true followers understand that his mission as messiah is one of peace, not war? Jesus’s sheep realize that his true mission is to teach us that through suffering comes joy, through defeat comes victory, and through death comes eternal life. Those who are unable to grasp that truth are not of his flock. Jesus doesn’t fit their criteria for the hoped-for messiah. This helps to explain at least in part the crowd’s hostile reaction to Jesus in the rest of Chapter 10.


The lesson for me was that I can’t have Jesus the Messiah on my own terms; I have to accept him as my Lord and Savior on his terms or not at all. He reiterates “his terms” over and over in the gospels in lots of different ways, but during the Easter season I think of the connection between suffering and redemption, between death and resurrection. "Unless the grain of what fall to the ground and die, it remains just a grain of wheat" (Jn. 12:24).  When I get angry at God because things are not going according to my plan, or when I start to lose confidence in Jesus’s promise to be with me always, that’s like looking for a different Messiah. It's as if I'm saying to myself "Jesus hasn’t delivered, so maybe I should look for someone with more of a 'Judah the Hammer' approach. Yeah! That sounds good. I’d rather be a hammer anyway. Especially in this world, you have to be practical, realistic. Jesus the Gentle Shepherd just doesn’t make it any more."

Maybe that’s why Jesus chose the feast of the Dedication to teach his followers that he intended to be the Good Shepherd Messiah. During this paschal season I have to ask for the courage to trust that even when things are going badly, especially when my plans and my hopes are going up in smoke, that Jesus’s approach to being a messiah actually works in the end. I need to trust what the Shepherd says in that gospel passage about his relationship with his sheep: "I give them eternal life, and they will never perish."

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