The Reverend Kathleen Killian
April 25, 2021
Easter 4B 2021
John 10: 11-18
The Beautiful Shepherd
In our gospel from John this morning, we find Jesus, a pre-crucified and pre-risen Jesus, teaching in the temple. The clock has suddenly turned back. In one of my favorite gospels, and the whole of John chapter 9, Jesus heals a man blind from birth, and on the Sabbath, which greatly offends the Pharisees and temple elite. Moreover, it was during the Feast of the Dedication, or Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, when Jewish people celebrate the Maccabean revolt (2nd century BC) against their vicious oppression by King Antiochus IV, and the subsequent restoration of the defiled temple.
What we might hear as pastoral or bucolic, the parable of the Good Shepherd was in fact communicated in a very tense and highly-charged situation. Though we read only part of it, the story ends with Jesus accused of blasphemy and an attempt on his life by stoning.
I have wondered why Jesus would proclaim himself a “good shepherd” in such a setting and circumstance. The ears of his listeners would have been distinctly attuned to the imagery of the shepherd, so deeply embedded as it is in the history of Israel and Old Testament scripture (as well as in the New Testament). Jacob, who wrestled with an angel who then named him Israel, was first a shepherd. The great prophet Moses tended his father-in-law's flock before he led the Israelites out of Egypt. King David tended sheep before ascending to the throne. And there were female shepherds as well, such as Rachel, one of Jacobs wives, and Moses’s wife Zipporah.
Jesus would have known that the Lord God himself is the Shepherd of his flock Israel, as the prophet Ezekiel records: I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the crippled, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will watch over; I will feed them in justice (Ezekiel 35:15-16).
But for us here today, and as Christians, perhaps the most familiar imagery of shepherds and sheep comes from our beloved Psalm 23, which Jesus would have also known as a first-century Jew. Can we pause for a moment and imagine what would it be like to hear Jesus sing to the God of Israel as his faithful Shepherd: The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want (v 1). Reflecting upon Israel’s exodus to the promised land, Jesus affirms his own deeply personal and intimate journey with the Father as he prays: He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake (v 2-3).
And surely these words might well have been on Jesus’s lips on his way to the cross: Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me (v 4).
Then from danger and uncertainty to shelter, sanctuary and feast: Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over (v 5).
As Christians, we pray this psalm, as we do every prayer, with and through Jesus. During the feast of Eastertide, we celebrate his resurrection and glorification in fulfillment of God’s promise of eternal life: Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever (v 6).
Yet in ancient Palestine, shepherds could also be a rough and disreputable lot. In the Rabbinic text, the Mishnah, it reads: A man should not teach his son to be an ass-driver, or a camel driver, 3 or a hairdresser, or a sailor, or a shepherd, or a shopkeeper, for their craft is the craft of thieves; and according to Levitical law, shepherds were ritually impure having had contact with excrement and dead animals, and thus excluded from the temple (see Leviticus chapters 11-17 for purity laws).
So when Jesus identifies himself as a shepherd, though speaking figuratively, he does so provocatively. And yet the deeper import of his meaning was lost on the Pharisees: Jesus told them this parable but they failed to understand what he was saying to them. So Jesus spoke to them again (John 10:6-7).
I am the Door, I am the Gate, I am the Good Shepherd that lays down his life for his sheep. Shepherds often worked alone and grazed their flock in remote uninhabited regions, which meant they were on guard 24/7 against attacks by wild animals, thieves, and bandits. At night, to protect the flock, a shepherd would lay down across the threshold of the sheepfold or enclosure, his body becoming the actual door or gate across which either friend or foe, or sheep or beast would have to cross; for this very reason, in allusion to the cross and resurrection, Jesus goes on: I have power to lay my life down, and I have power to take it up again. I am the Good Shepherd.
But Jesus is “good” not simply because he takes his job seriously or does it well or is especially morally upright; as Bishop William Temple (1881-1944) wrote, it is possible to be morally upright and repulsively so (Readings in John’s Gospel). Rather, as the Greek word kalos translates, Jesus is good because he beautiful, noble, and worthy of praise. He is good in such manner, in the beauty of his holiness, to draw all to himself. We find this same word in Genesis when God speaks the creation into being and pronounces it “good”: beautiful, noble, and worthy.
My father, bless his soul, always said goodbye to my son with this simple phrase: be a good boy. He said this when my son was a little child and grown adult, on the phone and in person, and with such assuredness and faith that it was far more a blessing than an admonition not to be bad. For my father “good” was most certainly of God.
In our text Jesus presses on: 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. His words causes division among his listeners, as some thought he was possessed and raving, while others believed in him.
What do we think upon hearing these words, given that Christianity is a multi-denominational and often partisan faith? If we can’t be inclusive and embracing within our own religion, then what of the other sheep that Jesus speaks of, that do not belong to this fold, that perhaps are not even Christian?
What is made abundantly clear is that the work of gathering the one flock belongs to Jesus and the Father. Our work is to open our ears that we may hear Jesus’s voice when he calls, and to open our hearts and provide a space of welcome in the church and community where all can come in and go out freely and without fear. From William Temple again: we must not forget that our vocation is to practice goodness in a way that people are won to it (Readings in John’s Gospel). We are meant to be “good" in the beauty and worth of God’s holiness.
If we can remember back, the thrust of Lent was purgative and to remember death; in the season of Easter it is illuminative and to remember life, and that we “sheep” are living in the Resurrection. Risen life is Incarnate life is Abundant life, and though our Festal Joy is perfectly realized in the hereafter, we are resurrected in Christ now, on this earth, and in these bodies. We are assured of the watchfulness, vigilance, protection and love of the Good Shepherd, the Anointed One, the Christ, in whom all things are reconciled.
The root meaning of the word shepherd is to feed; so may it be, O living and sustaining God, that we are fed by the body and blood of the One who is beautiful, noble, and worthy of praise, whose goodness faitheth never.