I really should keep track of how many times I’ve taught different books of the Bible, but I know for a fact that I’ve taught my way through John on at least three separate occasions, and that might be a record for New Testament books for me. (If there is a contender, it must be Ephesians.) I tell people whenever I teach that strange fourth gospel that it’s the book that my own seminary assigned to us for translation because the vocabulary and grammar are so simple, but when one gets into the way that the book uses the words, it’s by far a more difficult book than the oft-maligned Revelation.
Beyond being a difficult book, John is one of those “greatest hits” books–just about everyone who can conjure Biblical phrases from memory likely has a handful of John sayings somewhere stored away. But like Galatians (another notorious greatest-hits book), many people whom I’ve taught over the years have no idea how those “greatest hits” phrases fit into the argument that the book, taken as a book, makes. Today’s reading, of course, ends with one of those famous lines: “I and the father are one.” Strangely for someone (like me) who thinks of that sentence as a Trinitarian declaration, the sentence in this passage seems to have to do with snatching rather than with Being.
The Greek verb arpazein is a favorite for John: when the people try to force Jesus to set himself up as King of Jerusalem, the narrator says that the crowd tried to arpazein him. When Jesus talks about what wolves do to sheep, he uses the same verb. And in today’s passage, just after Jesus has finished his discourse in which he calls himself the good shepherd who protects sheep from wolves, he says of himself and of his Father that nobody can arpazein what belongs to them.
In other words, the oneness of Father and Son, at least in today’s reading, has to do with a unity of vigilance.
Perhaps anticipating that folks would object, noting that whatever sort of shepherd Jesus was, he certainly wasn’t doing much to convince most of the people of his kingship, Jesus reiterates a move that recurs in John and becomes one of the cornerstones of most Christian theologies of election: he links the response of the people to their status as the shepherd’s sheep. This ethical move is not unprecedented; after all, the prophets, especially those in the post-exilic period, issued some oracles about Israel’s being divided between the faithful and the wicked, and certainly the encounter in the book of Jeremiah between the eponymous prophet and the pro-Jerusalem Hananiah indicate that divisions among the group of people elected to be Israel are not unknown. That said, among the other things that make Jesus unprecedented (I realize I’m not going to exhaust that category here) is the fact that, in the synoptics as well as in John, he seems entirely comfortable making his own message an extension of the oracle in Isaiah 6, a sermon that makes deaf even as it announces good tidings that will save those who can hear.
It’s because of passages like this that I can’t fault my Calvinist brethren for developing and maintaining a very robust sense of unhindered divine option when it comes to who hears and who does not. The sower in the parable, after all, seems aware that he’s throwing some of his seeds on the road (a practice that seems too bizarre to account for by a simple “primitive farming methods” explanation). The vision of YHWH in Isaiah (later echoed by Jesus in Mark when he gives an account of his use of parables) tells Isaiah not to preach in spite of prior deafness but in order that the people might become deaf. To deny that the divine voice is also an electing voice seems a profound misreading of the text.
That said, I still maintain that there is a timeful element to these oracles, and that continues to keep me from resting among the tulips with the faithful. The oracle comes to Isaiah, I have to note, not in a historical vacuum but as Jerusalem has already exhibited deafness to the counsels of the Law with regards to their obligations to YHWH. And the oracle of Jesus, though it comes to be Christian Scripture, seems in its first utterance to hit ears already devoted to certain visions of what Israel means. In other words, the election here seems not to be an Unconditional Election but a profoundly contingent one, an election that Jesus explains in another parable about inviting people to a banquet. Although one could read the initial invitations, the ones refused, as merely a charade that necessarily proceed to the invitation of the blind and the lame, the force of the parable seems to indicate otherwise, that those refusing the banquet are in fact to blame because they could indeed have responded otherwise.
In sum, I’d prefer to keep that strong sense of election but take the parable of the sower (and Jesus’ interpretation thereof) alongside the parable of the banquet, a slightly more complex relationship between human act and divine election (certainly not a caricature in which people “earn divine favor”) but something that I’m confident that God is capable of carrying off. After all, if God is capable of calling a remnant from among a people ostensibly elect as a nation, what could really cause that God all that much trouble?