The story of the Good Shepherd is one most of us have heard many times and it brings to mind the pastoral images of Jesus as sweet and kind, but I want us to look closer at this story and what it is saying about who Jesus is. To do so, I want to back up and put the teaching in context.
It is the Sabbath and Jesus was teaching in the temple in Jerusalem. Some of those present have tried to discredit Jesus by bringing a woman to him that has been accused of adultery, and remind him that according to the Law of Moses, she should be stoned. Jesus points out that all those around her are also sinners, which does not endear him to the temple leaders. He then pardons the woman, putting himself in the place of a judge. Jesus calls himself the “light of the world” (John 8:12) and in an extended discussion about his identity with the temple elders, Jesus ends with the statement “Before Abraham was, I am.” There is no misunderstanding; Jesus has just linked himself with the creator, the one who revealed himself to Moses in the burning bush. In the eyes of the temple leaders, Jesus has just committed blasphemy and they attempt to stone him. Jesus flees the immediate area of the temple, and along the way, he heals a man who has been blind since birth. Strike 3, Jesus has acted as judge, proclaimed himself one with God, and now in their eyes has broken one of the Ten Commandments by healing someone on the Sabbath which broke their interpretation of Sabbath rules. Jesus will teach that showing a kindness to someone is never breaking the Sabbath. Who is this man? In the eyes of the temple leaders he is incredibly wicked. Jesus claims it is the other way around.
Jesus pulls images of shepherds from their own scriptures to further explain who he is. In Ezekiel 34, the prophet, speaking for God, chastises the leaders of Israel saying, “Ho, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the crippled you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them” (Ezek 34:3, 4). The prophet continues to list the sins of the bad shepherds and the resultant scattering of the flock. He concludes, “For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out” (Ezek 34: 11). The Psalms also describe God as the good shepherd, David says in Psalm 23 that we read earlier, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” (Psalm 23:1). When Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd,” he is again identifying himself with the God of the prophets. Jesus is claiming to be the fulfillment of Ezekiel’s prophecy.
Jesus begins by describing the relationship between the shepherd and the sheep. The shepherd enters the sheepfold by the gate; a thief climbs over the fence. The shepherd is recognized by the one guarding the gate and by the sheep. Perhaps an image we can better relate to is a person or persons entering their own home by the front door. If they have a dog, the dog recognizes them and lets them in. Their children run to them and embrace them, because their children know them and they know the names of each of their children. An intruder comes under the cover of darkness and sneaks in through a broken window to rob and kill. Jesus is the owner of the home who enters by the front door.
Next Jesus describes himself as the door of the sheepfold. The door of our homes provides us protection and makes us feel safe. When we settle in for an evening, most of us check to make sure the doors are secured and then we can sleep without worrying. Jesus is our door.
Today’s Gospel picks up where Jesus proclaims, “I am the good shepherd.” He states that the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He has been telling both the disciples and the temple leaders that he will be crucified before it is all over, but no one seems to believe him. Shepherds who cared about the welfare of the sheep would sleep at the entrance of the sheepfold so if any wild animals or rustlers attempted to harm the sheep, they would have to come actually step on the shepherd first. The shepherd would face lions, bears, and wolves to protect their sheep. That is how the young David was able to kill Goliath, because he was accustomed to protecting his fold from wild animals much larger and stronger than himself. Jesus is stating that he will die before he allows any harm to come to his sheep.
Jesus states that he has other sheep that do not belong to this flock, but that he will unite the flocks so that there is one flock and one shepherd. It is reasonable to assume that John was talking about bringing the Gentiles into the flock with the Jews, but there is still only one flock. In this age of denominationalism it is easy to say, “We have all the answers and are the chosen ones, you are not.” Jesus calls us to find our common ground and to live peaceable side-by-side within the same fold.
Jesus then talks further about his death and resurrection, stating the Father loves him because he is willing to lay down his life for the sheep. He does so willingly and is able to take his life up again. He allows the crucifixion as a vehicle for demonstrating resurrection. This is what he has been commanded by God to do.
We are called to be sheep. We are called to respond to the voice of Christ and follow him. We are called to rest peacefully in the knowledge that Christ is our protector. We are called to come together as one flock living peaceably with one another, both within our family and parish, and with those other flocks that Christ has called to be part of the larger flock.
We are also in some sense called to be shepherds. By our baptism we are all called into the priesthood of believers. Jesus told Peter, “If you love me, feed my sheep.” In what ways are we feeding Jesus’ sheep? Or are we eating the fat, and clothing ourselves with the wool? What are we doing to strengthen the weak? How are we healing the sick and the crippled? Are we bringing back those who have strayed and seeking out the lost?
Now, more than ever, people seem to be trying harder to belong to something while feeling more isolated. They are seeking approval and acknowledgement of their self-worth. Social media shows us the many ways people seek attention. Self-destructive behaviors such as alcohol and drugs are often sought as a means of escape from a world that seems too hard and cold and critical, but they are deep pits and ferocious beast that destroy. Some of the violence we see today are people seeking attention in destructive ways.
As you leave this building this morning, look out and see all the sheep wandering lost and aimless. See how many are falling into pits and being devoured by wild beast. Let us help Jesus bring them back into the fold where they may graze on God’s bounty in safety.