At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.”
The whole of chapter 10 of John’s gospel is replete with imagery of sheep and shepherds. In this one chapter, Jesus compares himself to a shepherd watching over his sheep as well as the gate of the sheepfold through which the sheep enter. Eventually, of course, John will compare Jesus explicitly to a lamb being slaughtered during the crucifixion. The sheep/shepherd imagery is perhaps John’s favorite metaphor, and likely would have been understood by his early readers. Shepherding was a common occupation during the time of Jesus, though a lowly and undesirable one. Shepherds were typically those who had no property or obligation to family, those who turned to the itinerant life of herding sheep in the wilderness as a last resort to making a living. That Jesus would compare himself at all to one of society’s best-known outcasts is striking, but becomes even more so when in the same breath he declares “the Father and I are one” . There is something about the life of a shepherd that tells us about who Jesus is. There is something about shepherding that reveals God.
Those of us living in the twenty-first century, however, don’t do so well with shepherd imagery. We don’t see many shepherds these days, do we? What was once commonplace has become obsolete, and our unfamiliarity with the task of herding sheep makes it difficult to fully appreciate the meaning behind John’s metaphor. We tend to reduce the image of shepherds and sheep to one of pastoral tranquility, something akin to a reaffirmation that God “maketh me lie down in green pastures” and “leadeth me beside still waters”. While such a connection may be appropriate and necessary for those needing to be comforted, it nevertheless overlooks the dangers and difficulties that shepherds faced.
Consider, for instance, that the primary task of a shepherd was protecting the sheep. There were constant threats of predators or thieves wherever the shepherd happened to be. Jesus alludes to this reality in the first eighteen verses of chapter 10, where he speaks of both thieves and wolves. It falls to the shepherd to defend the sheep from these constant threats. In comparing himself to a shepherd and his followers to sheep, Jesus means to invoke this kind of image – the sheep living under constant threat (though blissfully ignorant most of the time) while the shepherd constantly protects, oftentimes putting his own life in danger for the sake of his flock. In fact, this very willingness to confront the danger and “lay down his life for his sheep” is what makes a shepherd “good” (see John 10:11-14). Once again John’s gospel tells us in no uncertain terms that Jesus’ life is in danger. It is no coincidence that the “good shepherd chapter” of John ends with Jesus’ nearly being stoned. That’s not exactly pastoral or tranquil, is it?
Of course, no one ever said that the Christian life should be tranquil. We may at times fall into the trap of assuming that we Christians should somehow enjoy benefits that others do not by virtue of our belief. To the contrary, Jesus himself teaches us that following him means just the opposite. Time and time again our lives will be tested. Time and time again we will come face-to-face with the threats and evils of the world. Time and time again we will be called to respond with the selfsame love, grace, and sacrifice as our Lord Jesus did. Claimed as his sheep, Jesus means for us to be his shepherds in the world.
As we minister in his name it can be difficult to keep him at the center of all that we do. There are countless voices in our world competing for our time and attention, vying for our allegiance. In this day and age of twenty-four hour cable news and op-ed “infotainment”, we are constantly bombarded with voices on top of other voices, one talking head after another. A great deal of consideration is given to how and where we get our information about the world, and the media presents us with particular slants and spins designed to convince listeners that this or that voice is to be trusted above all others. Sometimes it can be difficult to hear the voice of our shepherd above the cacophony of words.
A friend of mine once told me that being a pastor is like being a stray dog at a whistler’s convention. That image is humorous but illustrative of what happens when we don’t know who our master is. We end up running this way and that, on one misguided sprint after another. Wouldn’t it be fulfilling to be able to hear that one tone above all the noise, that one whistle that tells us who we are and who’s we are, that one signal that makes all the others fall flat? Jesus tells us that his sheep know his voice and follow him. If this is true, then it means a primary task of following Jesus is listening. We must train ourselves to hear his voice above all the other voices in our world, to daily connect with that voice that says, “This way! You belong here with me!” But we must understand that following the voice of Jesus brings us face-to-face with the “teeth” of life, so to speak. We are called to encounter and resist the threats of the world, threats such as oppression, poverty, injustice, and dehumanization.
When we do so, we do so under the watchful eye of our compassionate shepherd, the guard who lays down his life that we might live. He is our Lord, who claims us and calls to us as we move from one wilderness to the next. He leads us to confront the threatening evils of this world knowing that they have no real power over us. Though they may assail us and cling to us, they cannot pry us from the grasp of our Savior. Though they may kill us, they cannot extinguish our life in Jesus Christ. Though they may sever us from our earthly life, they cannot separate us from the love of our eternal shepherd.
That, simply stated, is who God is.
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First Look is a weekly commentary on the upcoming lectionary gospel text, written by Rev. Lee A. Koontz. It is usually published on Mondays.