Jesus said to the Pharisees, ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So, there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason, the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.’ John 10.11-18
One of the most powerful and indeed memorable pictures that scripture gives us to help us understand something of the character and purposes of our God is that of the Shepherd. For generations, this particular image has held great significance for Christian people, which is why for example, it’s illustrated in countless stained-glass windows and so on. But this loveliest of images isn’t without its problems.
Nowadays, for instance, we have to be careful, or at least more aware, of what we’re saying when we use the picture of ‘sheep’ (by implication to describe people) because nowadays it carries the notion that we think of them as somewhat stupid. And this is not only insulting but probably inaccurate, at least to anyone who has sat and watched sheep. For example, we might want to sympathise with the shepherd who told a newspaper some years ago that he was perplexed about his sheep getting out of their enclosure…. Until he realised that they had learnt to roll across the cattle grid! And for what it’s worth, I’ve seen them on the other side of the Kirkstone Pass climbing over the walls!
So, when we hear our Lord use this same image of the shepherd and the sheep, it’s good to be aware of its complexity; and also, to avoid jumping too quickly into making a connection between what WE know of sheep and shepherding (or at least what we THINK we know about it!) and then assume that THAT’S what Jesus has in mind.
Clearly, we want to see if we can get some handle on what people thought Jesus meant when they heard him call himself the ‘Good Shepherd’? But although it could be fruitful, I don’t want to go into what scholars and others can tell us about shepherding practices in first century Palestine. I want to focus on one particular thing Jesus is doing. Essentially, in using this image he is taking the people back into their story… to the time when Ezekiel castigated the ‘shepherds’ (the leaders of Israel) for effectively leading the people astray.
We reach a moment in Ezekiel Chapter 34 where the Lord God declares that he himself will now ‘shepherd’ the people. Putting it another way, the people had been subject to far too many siren and competing voices. Too many charlatans, ‘hired hands’ had exploited them…. And now the Lord himself would act. And what Jesus is doing is picking up the mantle of Ezekiel. And in this morning’s Gospel reading (let’s face it) in an incredibly caustic way he’s brushing aside the ‘hired hands’ of his day; and referencing himself as the “Good” Shepherd who following the Father’s will, lays down his life for the sheep.
In other words, it’s all about him. Just like in Ezekiel’s day, this was one of those ‘enough is enough’ moments! Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd”. He was claiming that what Ezekiel had promised was coming true…. and didn’t the people just know it! So, what I’m saying is that although this picture of ‘Good Shepherd’ can understandably and with some justification lead us to significant conclusions about the compassionate character and purposes of our God… all of which are of huge importance to faith. When we hear what he’s saying in the context of Ezekiel’s message we’re given a picture that is more fundamentally about God’s rightful place and significance as the one who holds centre stage. As the one to whom we all look.
I think it’s summed up in those words, “I know my own and my own know me”. Or, to put it another way, in the midst of the huge number of competing and contradictory voices we hear telling us how we should live; and consequently, the seductive and all too often illusory images we give ourselves to, it’s in the ‘Good Shepherd’…it’s in Jesus that we get our bearings…. The Living God is found here in Christ himself.
And this point is underlined for us in the Psalm that we read a short while ago. I want to suggest that for far too long we have allowed the assumption that faith is about letting propositions and ideas about God; to which we do or don’t give our assent, to hold centre stage. But this picture of the ‘good shepherd’ is the perfect antidote to this. Because it is unashamedly relational.
Let me explain. In that loveliest of the Psalms which we read a short while ago, notice how it begins in familiar style:
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake…. And so on. (Psalm 23)
And on this basis, we could give assent to the idea that our God provides, leads and refreshes us and so on. These are fundamental and highly important things. But although they are significant, the point is that they are simply thoughts about God. But it’s when we come to the next verse of the Psalm that something happens: It says, ‘Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me’.
Here’s the thing. From talking about God, from having great thoughts about God the writer moves into a conversation with our God. And so, in a sense, this is the fundamental point about this image of the Good Shepherd. And our readings today are an invitation to reflect more deeply not only on what it means for us to say, that Christ is the Good Shepherd. That (again) in him the promise of Ezekiel is coming true.
More significantly I’m invited to ask what it means to say that he is MY Good Shepherd?
We take a significant step in faith when we ask what it might mean for me to enter into that same conversation; to be one of his flock, to listen to his voice, to know him and to follow him