3Easter 4 – 2022
Today our Gospel reading comes from John Chapter 10. We are Introduced to the image of the shepherd. We hear how the shepherd enters the sheepfold, calls the sheep by name, and leads them out to pasture. Jesus identifies himself as the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. He adds that no one will snatch the sheep out of his hand. At the very end of the Gospel Jesus urges Peter to “feed my lambs… Tend my sheep…Feed my sheep.” This suggests that Peter’s task must be understood in the light of what Jesus said earlier in the Gospel.
At the time of Jesus, a shepherd was a common sight, walking ahead of his sheep with the flock following behind. In the OT some of the leading figures in Israel’s history had been shepherds. God appeared to Moses while he was tending sheep and David learned the art of war by defending his flocks against predators. The term shepherd was also used metaphorically for Israel’s leaders, a future king and even for God himself.
In the ancient world the shepherd image awakened nostalgia of an idyllic life, but also I was surprised to find out recently it aroused suspicion, because they were often thought of as rough, unscrupulous characters who pastured their flocks on other people’s land, pilfered wool, milk and kids from the flock. So perhaps our perceptions may be just a little different from those at the time of Jesus. Shepherding might attract or repel, or convey a sense of peace or uneasiness, depending on the reader’s background.
The original context of Jesus’ words in Ch10 lie in dispute and conflict. Jesus is having a ding dong with the Pharisees over their harsh treatment of the man born blind. It is to these people that his words are addressed. This is a confrontational situation in which things are being said to provoke and shock. Today Jesus is in the temple, once again being questioned by people about whether he truly is the messiah or not and he expresses his frustration that they will not believe on the evidence of their own eyes and ears. “But you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.” And people took up stones to kill him.
If we are to get to the heart of what Jesus is on about in this chapter of John, we have let go of images of sheep farming, ancient or modern. Maybe you aren’t even that good a shepherd if you lay down your life for the sheep, and certainly not if you leave the ninety nine on the hillside and go wandering off looking for a single sheep.
No we must turn to the Old Testament for help in getting beneath what Jesus was on about and why he spoke to the religious leaders in the way that he did.
There is a key passage in the prophet Ezekiel – Ch 34. Where we find a damning condemnation of the Shepherds or leaders of Israel, who have not cared for the flock of Israel and have allowed it to be scattered and become the prey of predators. – So the Lord announces: “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep – I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.” The false shepherds appear in the Gospel as the hired hands and yes, Jesus is clearly having a go at the Pharisees and the political leaders of his day. He is addressing his words to the professedly and professionally religious not just of his day but of ours – and if the cap fits we must wear it and feel the burden of judgement, any of us, lay and ordained who bear leadership roles within the church.
Reading the passage from Ezekiel I wonder if we have to widen the scope of these words to apply to the Church itself – charged with being the Good Shepherd’s representatives here on earth. Charged with hearing his voice and following in his ways. The prophet says “You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost.”Without a doubt this is a powerful statement of the church’s mission to the world and then also to each local Christian community. We could all do a useful exercise, asking ourselves about how what we do fits with these activities and how does in contribute to bringing them about. Strengthening the weak, healing the sick, binding up the injured, bringing back the strayed, seeking the lost.
I would also want this light to fall on those who occupy positions of leadership in our nation and local communities. What are they doing to strengthen the weak, heal the sick, bind up the injured, bring back the strayed and seek the lost. I’d love to hear a political manifesto which majors on this – for that would truly be Kingdom work.
There are echoes here of the parable of the sheep and the goats, and also the worked out implications of fulfilling the new commandment – that we love one another as he has loved us, and remember it’s the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.
There may be comfort in images of Jesus with a lamb laid across his shoulders, calling our names and asking us to follow, but there is also discomfort and the searching light of his loving judgement.