Tag Archives: kingdom of God

The Good Shepherd

“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

If You Choose, You Can Make Me Clean

A leper came to Jesus begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.  Mark 1:40-45.

At some point in our lives, most of us have experienced the pain, shame and loneliness of being an outsider.  In today’s Gospel reading, we find a man who knew that isolation intimately.  At that time, leprosy and most skin diseases were treated as a kind of plague.  Because of his illness, the community shunned him, and the Mosaic law justified and condoned their fears.  He had no right to approach Jesus, and Jesus had no business having anything to do with him, let alone touching him.

This man lived the life of walking ghost, or perhaps more accurately, a walking corpse. As a leper, this “unclean” man could not enter the Temple; he could not even enter any community other a community of other lepers.  Jesus enters into this ostracism by touching him and sharing in his uncleanness.

This man’s statement (“If you choose, you can make me clean”) carries a number of messages within it.  First, we can hear the pain in the voice of a man who simply doesn’t have the power to help himself.  We also hear a remarkable affirmation of faith in Jesus’ healing power.  And perhaps we also hear just a hint of a challenge to Jesus’ willingness to reach out to this man.

Jesus then tells the man something that God’s been trying to convey throughout the Old Testament:  I choose to heal you.  The text thus illustrates an important idea of divine freedom, reaching out to restore God’s creation.  As He did with Sarah and Abraham, as He did in the Exodus, and as he did on the Cross, God instinctively exercises His freedom to redeem our broken lives.  I think Jesus is telling us:  “This is what the kingdom looks like.”

Mark describes Jesus as “moved with pity”.  The phrase suggests a very deep emotional response, the sort of reaction that you feel deep within your gut.  It has also sometimes been translated as “moved with anger”.  I suspect that Jesus felt a certain anger at all those things which separate men from God, and perhaps at the lack of depth or vision in the priestly interpretation of the holiness code.  Perhaps Jesus was angry  with the very notion, embedded into this man by a life as a lonely outcast, that God would choose anything other than to heal him.

Regardless of whether Jesus was moved with pity or anger, we shouldn’t miss the important point:  His immediate response to this emotion was to reach out, to redeem and to restore.

Jesus then gives this man a strict warning not to tell anyone, but to simply present himself at the temple.  This instruction falls into what theologians call the “Messianic secret.”  In this passage and many others, Jesus often instructs those He heals (and even the demons he casts out) to keep quiet about what they’ve seen.  We get the impression that until the Resurrection (which would clearly reveal the meaning of Christ’s life) Jesus tried to avoid an incomplete understanding of his ministry.

Despite Jesus’ warning, the man begins to proclaim the news about Jesus.  This leads to a curious and ironic reversal.  While the man was originally kept from society, Jesus now finds himself an outsider because of his fame and the press of the crowds.  Cleansed of his disease, the man can now rejoin his town and family.  Having restored this man to his health and freedom,  Jesus could no longer travel freely and had to remain “out in the country” .  Jesus therefore becomes an outsider himself, no longer able to go to the towns and villages.  Even Jesus finds himself marginalized, and thus those who follow him should not be surprised when it happens to us, too.

In one sense, this passage is about risk.  Jesus took a tremendous risk in healing this man, risking contamination.  Jesus also took a risk in asking for this man’s assurance of secrecy, risking his own isolation.  By subjecting Himself to human history and sin, Jesus risked our judgment and condemnation.  In fact, the Gospels point to the final risk of the Incarnation, the Cross.

I think today’s Gospel reading teaches us another important lesson.  Mark illustrates one of the core tenets of the Christian faith:  ours is religion for the last kids picked for dodge ball, the kids no one wants to dance with, and those who always get their hearts broken.  We shouldn’t read this as a story about something that happened once, a long time ago; Jesus still choses to make us clean, to restore us and heal us.  Following Jesus is all about second chances.  It was for this man in today’s Gospel.  And it is for you and me, too.

Shabbat shalom,

James R. Dennis

© 2012 James R. Dennis