(for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 26, 2015)
‘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 10:11-19, NRSV).
The image of YHWH as a shepherd extends back as least as far as Psalm 23. There the metaphor points to God as shepherd and King David as one of the ‘sheep of his pasture’. It is a powerful, memorable picture for Israel.
Given this history, it is a somewhat bold and controversial move for Jesus to re-shape this shepherd-talk. Make no mistake: Jesus is re-mixing sacred imagery. His listeners are familiar with ‘The Lord is my shepherd’. On Jesus lips it morphs into ‘I am the good shepherd’.
Perhaps not, however, without serious questions being raised. This is another ‘I am…’ statement drawing on YHWH’s self designation before Moses and what have become Israel’s national symbols. Remember: ‘I am the true vine’, ‘I am the bread of life’, ‘I am the light of the world’?
Jesus’ designation ‘good’ implies other not-so-good shepherds. These hired hands run at the first sign of danger. They scatter rather than gather. They preserve their own lives while the sheep are snatched. I wonder how the religious leaders heard all this?
Jesus, however, is not one of these. This flock consists of his ‘own’; he ‘knows’ them and the sheep ‘know’ him. Jesus is the true, familiar owner of this flock.
And as such he is not only willing to die for them. He will die for them. ‘Lay down’ is used on five occasions here; ‘take it up’ on two. It sends the shepherd image in a new, unexpected direction. A strong, and deliberate, life-giving theme.
The expanding of the flock is also new. Under the direction of God, Jesus will call together ‘one flock, one shepherd’. This is clearly God’s will and part of Jesus’ willing laying down of himself. Again I wonder how it was heard? Who are these sheep from other folds?
I guess it all seemed quite cryptic. Those familiar with the outworking of Jesus life can easily make sense of Jesus’ picture-language. It speaks of his coming suffering, death, and resurrection. It points to a gathering of the nations.
But his original hearers had no such advantage.
At least not yet. Later some of them witnessed the risen Christ. Others must have heard the resurrection claims. Rumours spread wide.
And as they heard, perhaps they, like we, found time to revisit Jesus’ words. Time to remember his shepherd-talk in light of these his cosmos-altering resurrection claims.
And who knows what God might do with such smouldering-wick faith-thoughts!