Historical Cultural Context
From Sheep to Shepherd
In today’s selection, the Johannine Jesus points to himself as the noble shepherd who contrasts starkly with the hireling. Five times Jesus the noble shepherd refers to “laying down his life” for the sheep while the hireling is frightened by the mere sight of the approaching wolf and flees, leaving the sheep to the predator.
The Beloved Disciple is also a noble shepherd, but Peter the braggart is portrayed as the hireling who abandons the sheep to the wolf. He has miles to go before he can be elevated to the rank of shepherd.
The Beloved Disciple
From the very first moment that he appears in the Gospel, the Beloved Disciple is clearly special. He is “the one whom Jesus loved” (Jn 13:23), who is an intimate friend of Jesus (reclining at his side, Jn 13:23), and who obtains for Peter inside information from Jesus (Jn 13:24-26). The modem reader is stunned to see Peter dependent upon this disciple for access to Jesus!
As the story progresses, the Beloved Disciple follows Jesus closely through his moments of crises to Caiaphas’ house and even to the cross. This disciple risks his very life by being so closely associated with Jesus. Peter, it is true, cut off the ear of Malchus the high priest’s servant while trying to defend Jesus in the garden, but Jesus ordered him to put away his sword (Jn 19:10-11). Peter did the wrong thing.
The noble shepherd enters by the door (Jn 10:2). The Beloved Disciple, known to the high priest, entered into his house but Peter stood outside (Jn 18:15). The noble shepherd commands the gatekeeper to open the door (Jn 10:2-3); the Beloved Disciple, known to the high priest, requests the maid who kept the door to open it (Jn 10:16). The noble shepherd calls the sheep by name and leads them (Jn 10:3-4); at the request of the Beloved Disciple, the maid led Peter in (Jn 18:16). At this point in the story, the Beloved Disciple is clearly a shepherd, Peter is only a sheep.
At the Last Supper, Jesus washes the feet of the disciples including Peter (Jn 13:6-11). Neyrey identifies this as a ritual that is a nonrepeatable strategy for crossing a boundary, for transforming status. Baptism is ritual, a nonrepeatable strategy that transforms a nonbeliever into a believer and carries the candidates across the boundary into the community of believers.
Peter has already proved his loyalty to Jesus (Jn 6:67-69) and is already a member of the general circle of disciples (see Jn 9:28). In John 13:8, Jesus offers Peter the insider a “part” or “inheritance” with him. This is a new “clean” status, a more perfect role (in contrast to Judas who is “not clean” Jn 13:2, 11). But Peter does not fully understand what Jesus is doing (Jn 13:7, 9-10).
Peter’s misunderstanding is more fully played out a few verses later when he insists that he will lay down his life for Jesus (Jn 13:37; compare Jn 10:11), and Jesus predicts that Peter will rather deny him three times (Jn 13:38). Peter will be a disloyal coward (Jn 18:17, 25-27), behaving like a hireling, before his final, post-resurrection transformation into noble shepherd (Jn 21:15, 16, 17). Only then does Peter repair his lapsed loyalty with a threefold declaration of love. Indeed, after the Resurrection Jesus predicts Peter’s death (Jn 21:18-19) acknowledging that Peter’s earlier pledge (Jn 13:38) will ultimately find fulfillment.
Nothing in John’s Gospel is as simple as it seems. This small reflection on the noble shepherd binds together for contrast some key figures: Jesus, Peter, Judas, and the Beloved Disciple. In the Johannine community, where the Beloved Disciple was highly esteemed, it must have been difficult to demonstrate that Peter and not the Beloved Disciple was the shepherd of the group.
Peter’s transformation from disloyal coward to noble shepherd offers much food for thought to Americans who seem driven to put their leaders—secular and religious—through intense moral scrutiny. Peter would be the last person to throw stones
John J. Pilch
**From Saint Louis University