“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.
This reading from John’s Gospel offers a rich passage, and those who know it well may have lost some appreciation for its texture. First, when Jesus says “I am the good shepherd”, He presents us with one of the seven “I Am” statements. These include “I am”: the bread of life; the light of the world; the gate or door; the good shepherd; the resurrection and the life; the way, the truth and the life; and the vine. Each of these statements resonates with God’s self description found in Exodus 3:14 (“I Am Who Am”). In other words, John offers us a clear claim of the divinity of Jesus through these statements.
Jesus’ description of himself as a good shepherd also resonates with God’s announcement in the Old Testament: “For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep.” Ezek. 34: 11-12. From his deathbed, Jacob declared that God had been the shepherd “all of my life to this day.” Gen 48:24. Jesus’ description of himself further calls to mind the 23rd Psalm. Thus, Jesus locates himself firmly within the Davidic line: a shepherd king.
We also need to grasp just how startling Jesus’ understanding of himself as a “good shepherd” would have been to a first century audience. At that time, shepherds would have been considered am ha’aretz (people of the land or people of the dirt). Shepherds were considered dirty, coarse, boorish, and uncivilized. Rabbinic Judaism looked down on shepherds, who did not regularly keep the commandments. Because of their work, they may not have even kept the Sabbath.
The shepherds of first century Palestine were also a rough lot, solitary men of tremendous courage. They had to protect the flock from lions, bears, wolves and other predators. Rather than the gentle, pastoral image we may have inherited from the Romantic poets, shepherds were fierce fighters who were prepared for dangerous combat when necessary to protect their sheep. For example, David learned about battle by protecting his father’s sheep from predators. 1 Sam. 17:33-37.
So, there’s something in Jesus’ description of himself as “the good shepherd” that subverts our understanding and upends our expectations. Jesus also contrasts himself with “the hired hands” who run away in the face of a wolf. He thus begins to teach about his commitment to us, a commitment that disregards his own safety, that disregards his own life. This commitment, this covenant, finds its root in love, and in the Father’s love for Jesus and in Jesus’ love for the Father. Jesus teaches not only about the nature of His love for the disciples, but also about his love for every one of us. In essence, Jesus tells us: “I will not abandon you.”
Jesus then tells us that his sheep will listen to his voice. I wonder how well we do that today. Setting aside the question of listening, do we even recognize Jesus’ voice when he calls? Christ then offers a remarkable insight that speaks to our fractured Church today. He speaks of unity: “So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” When we encounter discord, schism, and fracture in the world, we can rest assured that at least one party (and perhaps all) are not listening to Jesus.
I believe this remarkable passage ultimately centers upon the overarching Christian commandment: love God and love each other. As Desmond Tutu once observed, “Nothing is too much trouble for love.” Love binds the sheep to the shepherd, and binds the shepherd to his flock. We understand the risks inherent in the practice of love, risks that will ultimately lead to Golgotha. Despite these risks, in the final analysis, the Gospel teaches us that nothing else really matters.
God watch over thee and me,
James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2012 James R. Dennis