Jesus’ discourse on the good shepherd takes place during the Feast of the Dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem, which would have been relevant to the Jewish readers of this story in John’s Gospel because it was during this feast that the Book of Ezekiel was read, particularly the 34th chapter, a portion that condemns the leaders of Ezekiel’s day as “bad shepherds.”
“You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool; you slaughter the fattlings, but you do not feed the flock. The weak you have not strengthened, nor have you healed those who were sick, nor bound up the broken, nor brought back what was driven away, nor sought what was lost; but with force and cruelty you have ruled them. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd; and they became food for all the beasts of the field when they were scattered. My sheep wandered through all the mountains, and on every high hill; yes, my flock was scattered over the whole face of the earth, and no one was seeking or searching for them.”
This passage is no less relevant today when we think of the leaders of our own country and state, those who have supported and passed legislation that has enriched the wealthy and impoverished the poor, who passed legislation that cut low-income housing, that eliminated labor rights, that cut medical care for children, that has consistently cut medical care for the mentally ill, that increased homelessness exponentially. There are leaders of other nations where violence has been the response to calls for democracy, where precious resources have been spent on weapons instead of food, where racial hatred has become part of national consciousness instead of embracing the reality that all people are one.
We see it over and over again: the shepherds aren’t doing their jobs. The weak have not been strengthened, the sick have not been healed, the broken have not been bound up, those who have been driven away, the homeless and the refugees, have not been brought back home…
Ezekiel says, “For thus says the Lord God, ‘Indeed, I myself will search for my sheep and seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock on the day he is among his scattered sheep, so will I seek out my sheep and deliver them from all the places where they were scattered on a cloudy and dark day. And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them to their own land. I will feed them on the mountains ofIsrael, in the valleys and in all the inhabited places of the country. I will feed them in good pasture, and their fold shall be on the high mountains ofIsrael. There they shall lie down in a good fold and feed in rich pasture on the mountains ofIsrael. I will feed my flock, and I will make them lie down,’ says the Lord God. ‘I will seek what was lost and bring back what was driven away, bind up the broken and strengthen what was sick; but I will destroy the fat and the strong, and feed them in judgment.’”
It is to this particular scripture that Jesus refers when he says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives his life for the sheep…and I lay down my life for my sheep.” This is a passage we have all heard before and it’s been the subject of famous paintings as well. We can think of the famous one of Jesus holding a lamb amid the flock of sheep under his care.
The problem with these paintings is that they depict a passive Jesus, and give us a picture of a passive God as well. What we do not see in these pious works of art is the good shepherd who is crawling into the crevice on the face of a cliff, arms and face scratched by briars, to get that one lamb who had gotten away. We don’t see the good shepherd running at the marauding wolf or coyote, waving a club in air, screaming, “You leave my sheep alone!” We never see the good shepherd who is crying as he tends to the wounds inflicted by the wolf, the one who is overcome with emotion as he tenderly wraps his own shirt around the leg of a bleeding sheep. What these works of art do not show is the good shepherd who pushes the fat sheep away with his staff so that the weaker sheep can drink first, and have enough to eat..
When Jesus says that he is also the “gate”, it’s important to realize that in ancient times, sheep were kept penned up at night for their protection. There wasn’t a gate to close, however, because that was the job of the shepherd—to lie down in the opening and to spend the night there, guarding the sheep, keeping them from wandering away, guarding them from harm. That’s what a good shepherd does—he becomes the gate of protection for those under his charge. “I lay down my life for my sheep…”
In the 1980s, shortly after the Tiananmen Square massacre, a group of students at aBeijingseminary, who had been a part of the student protest marches, some of whom had marched while others distributed water to the other students, were living in fear. When government tanks came into the square, just rolling over the students camped there, killing them indiscriminately, the seminary students had fled, terrified. They ran back to the seminary, where they huddled together in fear, wondering, waiting for the guards to come for them. The rector of the seminary, an old man, told them not to be afraid, that he would be the first one to meet the guards, should they come. And then he lay down in front of the door where they slept, keeping guard over their doorway. “I lay down my life for my sheep…”
I have a poster in my classroom that pictures an enormous herd of sheep following each other over a cliff to their destruction. One sheep, realizing what is going on, has turned away from the precipice and is attempting to go against the stream of sheep in the opposite direction. The poster has this sheep saying, “Excusez-moi, excusez-moi, excusez-moi…” I tell my students that my hope is that each of them will be that one sheep in a million to think for himself or herself, and not be swept away by the ideas and opinions of everyone else.
The poster reveals what most of us think about sheep in general: that they are dumb. The reason we think they’re dumb is that we’ve all heard stories about how they just keep moving regardless of what is going on around them. We’ve heard of tourists who’ve had to stop their cars because a parade of sheep was crossing the road and they weren’t about to stop for anything. The truth is that sheep do know the voice of their particular shepherd, they will follow him or her without question because they have come to know and to trust that everything will be fine. You and I cannot say with any degree of integrity that following political leaders without questioning is ever a good idea. But when we have a spiritual shepherd like Jesus, one who is willing to be the gate for us, one who will come look for us no matter how far away we wander, who will bind our wounds and nurse us back to health, it only makes sense to follow. Sure we have questions, some of have LOTS of questions, but in this sole case, it might be better to just follow him, and to follow his example–and save the questions for later.