Today’s scripture reading includes two of the most beloved passages in all of the Bible: The 23rd Psalm and the Good Shepherd. In the many centuries since these verses were recorded, multitudes of people, and not only Christians, have come to find strength and comfort in these words. But when Jesus first used this metaphor, providing solace may not have been exactly what he had in mind.
If we zoom out to take a look at the larger context of the passage, we find in previous chapter that Jesus has healed a man born blind – gasp- on the Sabbath. Upon being brought to the Pharisees by his friends, the man makes a defense for his healing which manages to offend the religious leaders, and is driven out of their presence. Subsequently, Jesus seeks out and finds him once again. The once-blind man can see clearly now, both physically and spiritually, and responds by worshiping Jesus. Not coincidentally, some of the Pharisees were lurking around, as usual trying to entrap him. So, Jesus begins to speak, directing his monologue primarily to the religious leaders, but also to the larger community as John recollects and records the discourse.
As Jesus speaks, he uses the metaphor of the shepherd and sheep, as had many of the prophets had before him in speaking of the nation of Israel. The community of Israel had been historically portrayed as the sheep, while the political and religious leaders of day were depicted as shepherds, and were often denounced by the prophets when they did not lead the people in the ways of God.
The metaphor of sheep, shepherd and sheepfold was very familiar to the agrarian audience/ to which Jesus addressed this discourse, but maybe less so to us. To help understand what comes next, it might be helpful to picture in our minds of what the sheepfold actually looked like. It could be built into a shallow cave, with a rock wall in front to keep the sheep secure. More often, it was built in the open meadow, shaped as a large oval or rectangle, with rocks piled into walls, covered with a layer of brambles or thorn branches along the top for extra security. This would be intended to discourage the nocturnal predators from scaling the walls to attack the sheep. Additionally, due to the intensity of the labor, shepherds would work together to build the folds and therefore, there could be several different herds resting secure within the pen.
All sheepfolds, whether in the cave or the field, would be built with an opening in the walls in order for the sheep to enter by night or exit by day. Now as pastures were ordinarily open areas with few trees, there were no gates to secure the sheepfold. Therefore, it was the job of the shepherds to doze in the doorway to keep the sheep from wandering out (you can imagine that a sheep with insomnia tried to wander out, you’d feel it!) and to protect the flocks from any predators that might try to enter. And upon the approach of the wolf or other nocturnal hunters, the shepherd would rouse and fend off the enemy with staff or slingshot. The shepherd was the first line of defense against any danger or harm that might come to the flock, risking potential injury that might come to them in order to ensure the safety of the sheep.
And so, when Jesus declared himself the good shepherd, he first compares himself to the hired hands, those who were hired to assist the shepherds. These men usually had no attachment to the sheep; for them, this was simply a job. And so, when danger came, they would flee, because they had not real investment in the flock. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” This is the main point made in verse 13: whereas the hired hand does not care for the sheep because they are not his, the good shepherd does. They are his sheep, they belong to him, they have an intimate relationship with him (“I know my own and my own know me”), as a parent to a child, as perhaps an owner to a precious pet.
As I pondered this concept, I could not help but think of Vicki, who owns and operates a small business in a shopping center near my house. Vicki runs an independent pet supply store in Sparks, more than 20 years in business, which is quite an accomplishment, given the proliferation of the big box pet shops. As her business has grown over the years, she has made it a point to know each repeat customer and their pets. Additionally, she has hired and mentored numerous part-time employees, my two daughters included. Now my girls and the other employees were like the hired hands – good at their work, but for them, it was just an after-school job for pocket money. She has had good employees (I like to include my girls in that category) as well as not so good employees, including at least one who stole from the cash register when closing at night. But if the going ever got tough – or boring, the employees could just quit and go. But as the owner, Vicki is totally invested in her business and her customers, unlike the employees at the big box stores. That business truly is her life, and she gives her all to make it successful, in a small way just as the Good Shepherd was willing to give up everything for the sake of sheep; as opposed to the religious leaders lurking around who seemed more interested in the perks and power that came with their positions than the people in their charge.
Jesus said, the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The shepherd will risk life and limb and even be willing to die for the wellbeing of his sheep. And as THE good shepherd, this passage has often been used to foreshadow the death of Jesus on the cross. He loved us enough to die for our salvation. And it begs the question, can we even imagine what it would be like to die for the sake of someone else?
Back in 1957, Hollywood released the now classic movie, “The Bridge Over the River Kwai?” How many of you have seen it? As wonderful as it was, the movie only told part of the true account. Behind the movie is another, more important story. In his book, “Miracle on the River Kwai,” Ernest Gordon says that Scottish soldiers, forced by their captors to labor on a jungle railroad, had degenerated to a level of barbarity, of animalistic behavior toward each other in a struggle to survive.
One afternoon, a shovel was missing. The officer in charge became enraged. He demanded that the missing shovel be produced, or else. When nobody in the squad budged, the officer took out his gun and threatened to kill every single one of them, right there, on the spot. It was obvious the officer meant what he said. Then, finally, one man stepped forward. The officer put away his gun, picked up a shovel, and proceeded to beat the man to death.
When it was over. The survivors picked up the bloody corpse and carried it with them to a second tool check. This time – no shovel was missing. There had been a miscount at the first tool check.
The dead man was innocent. He had voluntarily died to spare the others. And what was it Jesus said, “the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep?”
But that wasn’t the end of the story. The fact that someone had died to save them worked a profound change on the prisoners. As one of them said, “we wanted to be worthy of the sacrifice.” Rather than compete with one other in order to live, the prisoners began to treat one another as brothers, looking out for each other and taking care of each other.
When the victorious allies swept in and liberated the prison camp, the Japanese guards were terrified. They fully expected to die, to be executed on the spot. Their former prisoners, little more than skeletons, lined up in front of the guards and began to shout. “No more hate. No more killing. What we need now is forgiveness.” The Japanese guards were stunned, and broke down weeping.
The story is a reminder that sacrificial death has transformative power. The death of that anonymous prisoner transformed the POWs from isolated and competing individuals into a community who cared about and for one another. The sheep became shepherds to one another.
This one man’s sacrificial death also transformed the way the prisoners saw their captors. When the war was over, they chose to treat their oppressors as lost sheep – not as ravenous wolves. They saw them as the “sheep not from this flock,” that Jesus spoke of and decided to forgive them and love them.
The image of the good shepherd tending to the one beloved flock, so valued and valuable that the shepherd will stop at nothing to keep them gathered and safe, calls forth a longing in me that feels almost primal, mostly subconscious, but unmistakable as I read this passage from John or hear aloud the 23rd Psalm. I shall not want. Rest will be granted. Fear will be jettisoned for deep contentment. Every threat met with protection giving way to a sense of deep peace. It reminds us that we can face the future knowing that we are in the loving care of one who loves us more than life itself. Indeed, this passage closes with Jesus’ assertion that, “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”
This is more than a theological assertion of Jesus’ power over life and death. It holds a promise, the promise that Jesus, who is both gate and good shepherd cares for us enough to die for us, to lay down his life, to give us what all other leaders ultimately fail to give, and to remain with us through all things until we enter good pastures once again.
This gives me and maybe all of us, pause to consider, to ask- particularly in the light of Jesus’ Easter resurrection, with his triumph over death and the grave – how Jesus’ promises of care and protection address both our individual and communal fears. When Jesus said, “I know my own and they know me”, can that ease our fears of acceptance and inclusion? Can Jesus’ declaration and promise, “the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” alleviate our deepest worries so that we can be there for others, do what’s right, stand up to bullies who trade in fear, to become and be the people God needs us to be for this world God loves so much?
This connection between the promises of the good shepherd and our ongoing celebration of the resurrection reminds us that Easter isn’t simply a one-time celebration or holiday, but rather is a way of life, a life guided by the promise that there is something “More” than what we see, buy, collect, or hoard. Life, like love, is one of those things that, in the power of God’s Spirit, only multiplies as it is shared. And as love and life are shared, fear loses its grip on us and we taste, even revel in, not just life, but life in its abundance. So let us go forth, living out the joy of our abundant life in Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God. Amen.