“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays his life down for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away – and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.” (John 10:10-11)
A common image of Jesus depicts him holding a sheep. Often in these pictures, Jesus has a lamb draped across his shoulders. It is a sweet image – cute if not adorable. In many of these representations of Jesus, one can see the affection in his eyes. In others he looks to the distance assessing the danger at hand. Looking at such an image and thinking of Jesus as the “good ” shepherd can be a very pleasant, comforting, heart-warming experience.
The familiar psalm (23) echoes in our ears: “The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want.” We sing “Jesus loves me this I know” and it warms our hearts. We pray “now I lay me down to sleep” and think of ourselves as that cute little lamb sitting on his shoulders or carried in his arms.
But there is more…
Jesus goes on to say why he’s the “good” shepherd: he lays his life down for the sheep. Unlike those hired hands who are here today and gone tomorrow and wolves who trick and lead astray – Jesus loves his sheep to the point where he will sacrifice his own life for the sake of those he loves. That’s what makes him “good.”
In the context of John’s Gospel, Jesus calls out the religious leaders who are only concerned about their status, self-righteousness and making sure all the rules are followed. By their convictions they have lost their compassion for another person’s humanity. In the story that precedes these words (John 9), the religious leaders were more concerned about who had sinned, a man born blind or his parents, and ironically couldn’t see the restorative thing Jesus was doing by giving that man the gift of sight.
The warning here, of course, is for all religious people (both then and now) who miss what God is up to right in front of them. Too often we become too concerned about doing church right to notice real people in front of us. The promise of this passage is that Jesus will not only drape us on his shoulders in an affectionate way, but he will also both forgive us for running away as hired hands and will fight the wolves (and wolves in sheep’s clothing) who threaten us. He’s the “good” shepherd because Jesus dies for us. That we hear this story in the season of Easter expands the message to proclaim to us that Jesus not only dies – but is raised – lifting up our humanity, our dignity, our sense of calling to be see the humanity, dignity and calling in others as other sheep he loves.
There is another promise (and with it another warning too): Jesus is the “good” shepherd and we are not. Thanks be to God! Before we take on a messianic complex for ourselves or project it on others with Christlike expectations, let us remind each other that at our worst we can be the wolves that snatch up and scatter and at best we are hired hands that run away. Yet the dominant insight of Jesus being our “good” shepherd is that we are the sheep that Jesus has come to save. Most often we are that lost one of the flock – and it is Jesus (not anybody else) who comes to redeem us.
“The Lord is my shepherd”
The image the psalmist employs is not of a lamb on the Lord’s shoulders but of the shepherd who with a rod and staff leads us through the valley of the shadow of death to a feast in the midst of our enemies in the presence of God.
“Jesus loves me this I know”
Scripture proclaims that the love Jesus offers isn’t cute. It is agape – sacrificial love; the love that is shared with everything on the line as a matter of life and death; but with Jesus is a matter of death and life. It is the love only the “good ” shepherd gives.
“Now I lay me down to sleep”
In a world that is full of death and destruction (too often to the vulnerable) only Jesus offers a safety in his presence the world cannot offer through its ‘might makes right’, ‘you are with or against us’ and ‘get yours while you can’ predominant attitudes.
The question this passage leaves us with is this:
Who are you going to follow?
The hired hand?
A wolf who only seeks to devour you?
Or Jesus, who dies that you may have life?