I am the good shepherd
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. When the hired hand sees the wolf coming, he leaves the sheep and runs away. That’s because he isn’t the shepherd; the sheep aren’t really his. So the wolf attacks the sheep and scatters them. He’s only a hired hand and the sheep don’t matter to him.
“I am the good shepherd. I know my own sheep and they know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. I give up my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that don’t belong to this sheep pen. I must lead them too. They will listen to my voice and there will be one flock, with one shepherd.
“This is why the Father loves me: I give up my life so that I can take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I give it up because I want to. I have the right to give it up, and I have the right to take it up again. I received this commandment from my Father.” (Common English Bible, Jn 10:11–18)
Good Shepherd, draw us deeper into you. Give us hearts that listen, and minds that learn.
There is a vault in France, in which there is a metal object, about the size of a golf ball. It is a sphere, made of an alloy of platinum-iridium. It is very precious – not because of what it is, but because of what it represents. It is the international prototype kilogram, and it is the object that tells us how much a kilogram weighs. It is what we compare our measures to, to make sure they’re right.
This passage talks about Jesus as the good shepherd. The word good has changed over time, and although it was once a great translation for the Greek word, it now no longer is. ‘Good’ has become a wishy-washy word, for something that is positive. That isn’t the sense here. Jesus is the model shepherd, just as the international prototype kilogram is the model kilogram.
Jesus tells us what being a shepherd is all about. In this passage we shouldn’t think of the hired hand as someone who is bad – they’re just doing their job. Why should they put themselves at risk? When there is a cost too high, they choose to preserve themselves, and quite right too.
Jesus underlines how Christian service is completely different. The Christian servant is one who is willing to die – chooses to die – for those entrusted to their care. The real Christian servant is one who cares for the sheep in a way that means they know them intimately. The shepherd provides everything that is needed for the sheep, and that’s why they know instinctively know him.
Jesus is one who chooses to give up his life, knowing that it is in choosing to give up everything that we’re freed. If we hold on to anything we’re not free.
This reading from the Gospel often makes us feel quite comfortable and happy, because we’re confident that Jesus is looking after us. And that’s part of the point of the reading, of course. Jesus is our shepherd, he knows us intimately, and at our best we respond to him obediently, knowing that he knows us and his desire is only for our best.
What we sometimes miss out on is the teaching that Jesus is the model of the shepherd, and that is something we’re all called to be. Some of us in more formal ways, but all of us in our own way are called to live and minister in the way Jesus teaches – a way that chooses service of others before our own needs. This is a hard, hard saying, and it cuts across just about everything the world teaches. If you want to live, you’ll give up your life. Because it is only by giving up your life, and surrendering to Jesus that you will get meaning in your life.
The hard bit about this is that it isn’t allegorical. Jesus is not, here, pointing to a pious hope that we’ll all be a bit nicer to one another. The Christian community is to be marked by something much deeper – dying to ourselves, and living in God, which means living in one and for one another.
One of the reasons the the world is so cynical about the church is that we say these words, and hold them proudly. And so we should – but we often fail to live them out, or we attempt to redefine them as meaning something other than what they obviously do. Jesus’s challenge is radical – but it always is. The challenge to radical discipleship is the answer.
The challenge for each of us is to discover the way in which Jesus is calling each of us to be a sheep, and a shepherd. It will be different in each case. Some of us will know our call, some won’t. Some of us will think we do, but God will show us something new.
The challenge for us all is to realise that the point of all of this is not for us. The point of coming here on Sunday isn’t for us – it isn’t even for God, primarily. It is because we’re God’s gift to the world. A world that is broken, despairing, and in desperate need of God’s healing. We’re that healing, and when we come here on Sunday we come to hear, to learn, to be fed with word and sacrament, so that we can go out and be the shepherds we’re all called to be.
In the coming week put aside some time to read this part of the Gospel again. Read it expecting that God will speak to you, and to live in the world as if the words in it really matter, really make a difference: because they do, but only to the extent that we’re willing to live them out.
Good Shepherd, you lay down your life for us. Enable us to be daring and loving enough to be the shepherds you call us to be. Enable us to be small enough and meek enough to be the sheep you call us to be. As we walk with you this week, change our hearts and minds into your heart, your mind.