Of Shepherds and Sheep

One drawback to reading the Gospels in pieces is the fact that we tend to lose contact with the developing story. For instance, yesterday and today we will be reading from chapter ten of St. John's Gospel, the chapter that identifies Jesus as the sheep gate and the Good Shepherd. To get the full understanding of chapter ten, we must remember what happened in chapter nine.

Chapter nine of St. John's Gospel tells us the familiar story of the man born blind. One aspect of that story was the "blindness" of the Pharisees. At the end of the story, Jesus casts a rather strong accusation in their direction: Some of the Pharisees who were with him heard this and said to him, "Surely we are not also blind, are we?" Jesus said to them, "If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you are saying, 'We see,' so your sin remains." (John 9: 40-41). Immediately after this statement, Jesus asserts "Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever does not enter a sheepfold through the gate but climbs over elsewhere is a thief and a robber. But whoever enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. . ." (John 10:1-2)

It is clear, therefore, that the claim that Jesus makes about Himself is also a condemnation of the shepherds who have come before him; namely, the chief priests, elders, and Pharisees.

The metaphorical language that compares Israel to a flock of sheep and the leaders of Israel to shepherds is part of a very long tradition. The first king of Israel, David, had been a shepherd. The psalms and the prophets frequently use this imagery to explain God's care for the children of Israel. "We are the sheep of His flock" sings Psalm 100. "The Lord is my shepherd," proclaims Psalm 23. Ezekiel the prophet is perhaps the strongest of the damning voices in the Hebrew Scriptures: Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel. Prophesy and say to them: To the shepherds, thus says the Lord GOD: Woe to the shepherds of Israel who have been pasturing themselves! Should not shepherds pasture the flock? (Ezekiel 34:2)

Jesus follows in this tradition. He takes up the claims of Ezekiel and contends that the shepherds have simply used the flock of Israel for their own gain rather than shepherding rightly. They have become drunk with their power and influence. Their lust for power has led them to collaboration with the Roman occupation. Jesus' appearance on the scene threatens to upset their personal kingdoms.

Although the language with which we are most familiar speaks of Jesus as the "good" shepherd, a better translation might be "noble" shepherd. We can hear in this claim that Jesus is claiming authority over the flock. That authority comes not from some sort of privilege which he claims but through his willingness to die for the sheep.

If we claim Jesus as our shepherd, that assertion comes with a moral imperative. Sheep must follow the shepherd. In yesterday's reading from the First Letter of St. Peter, we heard that those who are baptized must walk in his footprints. We all know where that leads. As Jesus has sacrificed himself for the flock, the sheep must now lay down their lives for others.

While the language of chapter ten may bring us all sorts of warm, fuzzy feelings (lambs and sheep are endearing creatures after all), it is important that we realize that St. John's intention was anything but the giving of comfort. The Good Shepherd presents all of us, pastors and flock alike, with an imposing and strong call to servant leadership.

Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator

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