Scripture: John 10:11-18
I’m just going to come out and admit it. I have never really liked this scripture passage. I don’t want to be a sheep. I never have, so I’ve always struggled with this scripture passage, even though it’s one of the most beloved images of Jesus in scripture, even though we, like many other congregations, have it immortalized in our beautiful stained glass. I like Jesus the shepherd, caring and guiding, protecting and saving. But I don’t like being a sheep.
Now, I was born and raised in Iowa, but not on a farm, and my main experience with sheep has been in petting zoos. And they’re cute and all, but from what I’ve read, sheep are also not the smartest animals around. They’ll follow each other right off the edge of a cliff, lemming style. They won’t drink from moving water because they’re afraid of it. They’re largely defenseless, which is why they need that shepherd with his or her club to defend their many natural predators. And also, they’re kind of smelly and wool is itchy.
From what I read and researched this week, I’m not the only one who isn’t super-excited about being a sheep. Over and over again, theologians and commentators skipped right over the whole Jesus the shepherd, everyone else the sheep issue, and just decided that what this passage was actually saying was that we were supposed to be little shepherds too, and some other people were supposed to be the sheep. And I wanted to go along with that, because it makes this whole passage easier to deal with, and nicer to talk about. But unfortunately, try as I might, I just couldn’t read anywhere in this passage an instruction to take Jesus’ job, a promotion for some of us out of the ranks of sheep and into shepherd, or even a hint that Jesus wanted some help with his shepherding duties.
I am the Good Shepherd, he says. Twice, in fact, in verse 11 and then again in verse 14. Jesus is the Good Shepherd, not us. If you notice, Jesus gives us a warning about what happens when someone else attempts to nudge their way into the leadership position of the sheepfold- the hired hands. It doesn’t turn out well for us sheep. We get scattered and killed by wolves, in fact, so unless we want our brothers and sisters to succumb to that fate, we best remember our place in this metaphor- we’re the sheep.
My guess is that I’m not the only one who doesn’t have extensive experience with sheep, which makes our quest to understand this scripture a little tricky, right. Okay, so Jesus is the shepherd, and we’re the sheep, but why does that actually matter? What does it actually mean? Does it offer us more than a little bit of cuddly comfort on a Sunday morning? To answer the last question first, yes, there is more than a cuddly comforting image in this scripture passage. And to answer the other questions more fully, let’s take a deeper look at the very thing I’ve wanted to resist for so long- the sheep.
After Googling my way down several internet rabbit holes, let me save you all some trouble and say there is a LOT we can all learn about sheep. But the thing that is the most important for us to know is already laid out in our scripture reading. “14I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, … 16I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.” Sheep, though they may not be the most intelligent animals ever, though they may deserve their reputation for being stubborn and willful, have a remarkable ability to learn and respond to a human voice. In particular, the voice of their own shepherd, which they can differentiate from all other voices.
In ancient times, sheep spent their days outside in a large mixed fold, grazing with sheep who belonged to many different shepherds. In the evening, they were separated out into the individual sheep folds that belonged to each shepherd. This was accomplished not by marking the sheep or knowing them by sight, but by each shepherd calling his or her own sheep, who would then follow the shepherd along to the individual flock sized pen where they would spend their night guarded by the shepherd. This practice continues to the present day. In some Middle Eastern cities, it is common to see sheep following a shepherd through the twists and turns of packed streets to get to and from their grazing place. They know the shepherd, and the shepherd knows them. And they follow the one whom they know.
So, if you, like me, were looking for some guidance in living from this passage, here it is. Know your shepherd. Follow your shepherd, and your shepherd only. And, just a warning, it may not be quite as easy as it sounds to do this. Because we, like the ancient readers of this text, live in a world where many, many others compete to be our shepherd.
Shepherds are those we allow to lead us, whose voices we listen to and follow. And now, like in Jesus time, there are a lot of voices competing to lead us. Jesus said he was different from those other voices because of the kind of leader he was. He was the good shepherd, as opposed to the hired hands, who were very different kinds of leaders. The Good Shepherd reading we have this morning is from John, and in John, Jesus is in almost constant conflict with the elite Judean leadership. These leaders- the non-Good Shepherd ones- were concerned with one main thing in their leadership. Keeping the hierarchical structure of society intact. They were the educated elite the top of the pyramid, and they wanted to keep it that way, even though it meant that others were so impoverished that they didn’t have enough to eat, and couldn’t even get access to basic health care.
Jesus comes into conflict with them again and again as he speaks out against their injustice, their hoarding of wealth, their disregard for those who aren’t rich and educated like them, and their claim to follow God while doing this. And Jesus acts against them too, including all those people they didn’t think were good enough for access to the same privileges they enjoyed in his ministry. Feeding them. Healing them. Removing barriers for their full inclusion in society, and living out God’s love for them. Leading them all into abundant life, as Jesus tells us is the whole point of his life and ministry, just a verse before out reading picked up today.
And in John, this is what gets him killed- his work for abundant life for all. Those with privilege were so afraid of the structures of oppression he was trying to break down that they killed him to stop the inclusive justice he was trying to create. Jesus knew where his ministry was heading. He knew what the leaders were going to do to him. And that didn’t stop him. He was willing to lay his life down for the sheep, no matter what, even though it meant his own death. The others who attempted to lead were not willing to do such a thing- their self-preservation came first.
So whose voice are we going to follow today? Sadly, we haven’t really come that far from the unjust hierarchical society of Jesus’ time. We still have “leaders” who tell us that for our own self-preservation, the lives of others have to be sacrificed, that we certainly can’t feed hungry people, or give health care access to the sick. And people who cross certain boundaries have to be excluded, because they’re not good enough to get the privileges that others enjoy. And of course, on top of it all we have to be very, very frightened of what those others might do to us or take from us.
They don’t speak in our Good Shepherd’s voice, though they do their best to play on our primal fears and lure us away. Our Good Shepherd is willing to lay down his life, to care and love beyond boundaries, to provide extravagantly for all, even those sheep we definitely don’t see in our own pastures, and those sheep who might make us nervous should they show up in the same fold. Because to him, there is no such thing as the “other,” for his flock is so much bigger and inclusive than we can ever dream.
Jesus is our Good Shepherd, and we are his sheep. He knows us, and our charge is to know him. To listen to and heed his voice. We are being led, whether we like it or not. The good news in this passage is that we have a choice about who leads us- the Good Shepherd or the hired hands. So listen very closely to the voice of those who seek to lead you- the politicians, the advertisers, even the friends and family. Do you hear fear mongering? The message that there is not enough? An insistence on excluding others? Or do you hear love? Extravagance? Care for the needs of all? A willingness for self-sacrifice on the behalf of others? Know your shepherd, and follow only him, and he will lead you to the way of abundant, eternal life. Amen.