Just mention the title, the Good Shepherd, and almost immediately we see in our mind’s eye those pictures we grew up with in Sunday School. Jesus with a lamb on His shoulders or tucked under His arm, or standing quietly at His feet. It’s an idyllic picture, reassuring image of Jesus, intended mostly to comfort children.
Unfortunately, that’s not exactly the way this image functions in the Gospel of St. John. In John the Good Shepherd is not the soft and gentle Jesus who offers cuddles to the lost lamb inside each of us. Our image of shepherds arises from our Christmas pageants: children in long robes, youthful faces, sweet, and pleasing. Very cute!
But in John… the shepherd is much more like a cowboy! Sheep may not be as large as cattle, but they’re hardly small, averaging 400-500 pounds. They’re not really designed to sit quietly in your lap. They don’t love you, they need you. And if you’re a shepherd, you need them. Yes, the Good Shepherd may give his life for the sheep, but the sheep also give their lives for the shepherd, who is fed and clothed by them. They earn the shepherd his wages. Both sheep and shepherd are in this together for their mutual survival. That’s a very different picture!
And especially throughout the Old Testament, which St. John loves to allude to, God has this wild affinity for cowboys! In Genesis Abel, the cowboy-shepherd gained more favor in God’s eyes than his brother Cain, the farmer. Jacob, the camp cook, was nothing compared with his wild & wooly brother, Esau, the cowboy-herdsman! Until Jacob runs away to uncle Laban’s ranch, where he turns out to be a rather good cowboy.
King David was a cowboy-shepherd, and God preferred him to all his bigger, handsomer, smarter brothers. God made him King. And over in the New Testament, the cowboys of Bethlehem were the only people invited to Jesus’ birthday party. And now Jesus is The Good Cowboy.
“I am the Good Shepherd,” Jesus says. And in these first verse of John 10, He qualifies that and says “I am the door for the sheep.” You have to go through Him! Perhaps you remember some of the other “I am” sayings. “I am the bread of life.” “I am the light of the world.” “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” “I am the true vine.” “I am the resurrection and the life.”
In John’s Gospel, these images help the reader understand Christianity’s Jewish heritage. It was a time when Jewish Christians were being evicted from the synagogues because of their belief in Jesus. And Jew or Gentile, Christians were suffering the Roman persecutions.
So John is bringing many things together. Manna in the wilderness has become Jesus, the Bread of life. Divine light, symbol of God’s revelation, is now Messiah to whom the Law and Prophets bore witness. The way of wisdom is now Jesus the Way. And the shepherd, a common enough sight across the ancient Mediterranean world and a common metaphor for leadership since the time of King David, is now Jesus the Good Shepherd.
Each of the “I am” sayings in the Gospel of St. John is simply stated and easily grasped. Yet, simple as they are, they are also an invitation, a call into the depths of discipleship with Jesus, a wild cowboy ride, if you will, with Him in whom we live into all the promises that He has made; promises which have been so completely fulfilled on the cross and in the resurrection.
This 10th chapter of St. John’s Gospel follows immediately after the expulsion from the synagogue of the man born blind, whom Jesus had healed by use of some mud and sending the man to wash, to baptize, his eyes in the Pool of Siloam. So it is easy to read the “thieves and robbers” as Jesus’ reference to the Pharisees who were cruel and harsh to that man.
Jesus warns His listeners about thieves and robbers. They speak with an unfamiliar voice. They come only to steal and kill and destroy. They see the wolf coming and leave the sheep because they do not really care for the sheep. In this swirling mass of predatory behavior, the Good Shepherd stands firm, like so many Clint Eastwood characters, like John Wayne’s True Grit or Gary Cooper at High Noon. “Do not forsake me, O my darling!” Unflinching in danger. Un-intimidated by threats. A trait He may have inherited from His mother. Mary was far too submissive to please feminists, and yet far too strong to fit docilely into any patriarchal paradigm!
Like His mother, Jesus is unmoved by such things because He is moved only by His love for the sheep…not a soft, gentle love…but a wild, cowboy love! A love that is always putting itself on the line for the survival of shepherd and flock!
And what the seven “I am” sayings in John’s Gospel have the effect of doing is unifying Jesus’ followers, His disciples, His sheep, within the unity of the divine Father and Son.
So John piles up the metaphors. There is one Good Shepherd, so there is one flock gathered around Him. And because Jesus is the bread, His flock is gathered around Him to eat. Because Jesus is the light, His flock is drawn out of the darkness of death and into the light of eternal life. Because Jesus is the way, His flock walks with Him in the way that leads to eternal life. Because Jesus is the Vine, His flock derives its fruitfulness from Him.
Well, so far, so good. Very comforting. But then, Jesus connects the Good Shepherd with the cross. “The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Oh that theme lies at the heart of many a classic cowboy story!
Yes, ancient culture expected shepherds to do what was best for the sheep, possibly even risking their lives for the flock. But crucifixion was humiliating and repulsive. Could a Good Shepherd who was crucified unify His flock? Wild!
All seven “I am” sayings are brought together as one in the cross. None would be true without the cross. “Thy rod and Thy staff [the cross] …comfort me.” Because only this life-laying-down Shepherd, is the One who can speak His last “I am” saying: “I am the resurrection and the life.”
And suddenly all those bucolic scenes in Psalm 23 come into clarity. It is not simply that God leads His people in green pastures and along still waters…in Jesus God is our green pasture and our still water. It is not simply that God leads His people in paths of righteousness…in Jesus God is our righteousness.
And it is not simply that God leads His people through valleys of the shadow of death to dwell in His house forever…in Jesus God takes up our death Himself. He is our life everlasting.
Sometimes…sometimes we Christian flock folk bleat on and on about knowing God…knowing Jesus…as if it’s something we could accomplish! We get much worked up about knowing what to do with the thieves and robbers who infect the flock and fill it with scandal. We stew about knowing what to do with the wolves who howl that all religion is toxic, as if we sheep can change that.
Oh yes, we have laws, and we make new laws. But law is always a penultimate solution. And we are always facing ultimate predators!
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of many lambs slaughter by the irreligious Nazis, once wrote, “In the fallen world, the center is also the boundary. Man stands between law and fulfillment. He has the law, but he cannot fulfill it. Now Christ stands where man has failed before the law. Christ as the center means that He is the fulfillment of the law. So He is in turn the boundary and judgment of man, but also the beginning of man’s new existence, his center. Christ as the center of human existence means that He is the judgment and justification of man.” [Christ the Center]
That’s a fancy theological way of saying that Jesus is the cowboy-shepherd who holds everything together. In Jesus, we are known to God as sinner…and yet saint. In Jesus God is known to us as just…and yet so merciful. The Good Shepherd, dressed not in silk, but in the sturdy denim of bread, light, way, door, vine, truth, resurrection and life, He is able to see ahead, and do all that is necessary so that we sheep go where we have life and have it abundantly.
There are no soft, theoretical answers in the Bible to all the questions we have about God’s ways and the ways of this world. The only real answer is Jesus Christ, because in Him, God is with us in all the wild, rough and tumble of life. And whether it’s John and his readers at the end of the 1st Century A.D. or John with his readers now at the beginning of the 21st…in Jesus, God is with us. Yeehaw!