Historical Cultural Context
Americans hold ambivalent opinions about leaders. While they readily applaud good leaders, they are never quite certain how to identify and certify good candidates for leadership.
Endorsements by influential figures or organizations no longer seem to carry much weight. Unfounded rumors and sensational reports in tabloids seem to be more important.
Our Mediterranean ancestors in the Faith took a different view of leaders and leadership.
For one, a legitimate leader had to be suitably “installed” as leader. Today’s gospel narrative contains the major elements of a “vocation commissioning” event, a literary form that is commonly used in the Bible to authenticate different kinds of leaders.
Confronting bewildered disciples in a locked room, Jesus reassures them with a word (“Peace!”) and a gesture (displays his pierced hands and side). He is not a ghost but is alive, risen!
Jesus commissions the disciples after the pattern of his own commissioning by the Father. The commission is (1) formal (Jn 20:21); (2) sealed by the gift of the Holy Spirit (Jn 20:22); and (3) involves preaching repentance and forgiveness of sins (Jn 20:23).
In John’s Gospel, sin is the failure to believe in Jesus as the One the Father has sent. Hence this commission is best interpreted as charging these new leaders to bring new members into the community.
It differs from the traditional understanding of forgiveness of sin in Matthew 18:19, which describes how the community deals with the sinfulness of its present members.
In the gospel story line, Jesus established and strengthened his credibility by winning every argument with his opponents. No matter how often people try to trick him or trip him up, he comes out on top. His honorable reputation and his credibility grows, and he is never shamed. ...
Until his death. Crucified just like and between two common criminals, Jesus suddenly seems to be overcome by the deepest possible cultural shame ... until his resurrection.
Then it becomes clear that God is indeed pleased with this beloved Son, for by raising him from the dead God has honored him far more than any human accolades ever could.
All these ideas stand behind Jesus’ statement “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
That these newly commissioned disciples would be gifted with a very powerful spirit, the Holy Spirit (Jn 19:22), only guaranteed their efficaciousness.
Any first- or second-century Mediterranean native who heard or read today’s gospel verses would respect and accept these disciples as legitimate, honorable, and effective ministers commissioned by none other than Jesus, who had received from his Father the highest of honors: risen life.
Today’s Gospel challenges Americans to reconsider how they select and evaluate leaders, both spiritual and secular.
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible
**From Saint Louis University