The Good Shepherd: Wednesday, 20 January 2021
(Genesis 20 / Psalm 50 / John 10:1-21)
Collect: The Second Sunday of Epiphany
Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that your people, illumines by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that he may be known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I am always heartened by these or similar words when reading Scripture:
John 10:6 (ESV): 6 This figure of speech Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
John writes this about the disciples’ confusion over Jesus’ good shepherd parables. And the parables are confusing when you try to read them allegorically; they abound in symbols: a sheepfold, a door, a gatekeeper, a stranger, a hireling, a shepherd, the sheep, a thief, a wolf. Assigning each symbol a singular, particular meaning is difficult, if not impossible. The disciples couldn’t do it. The Church Fathers couldn’t do it. I can’t do it. Thankfully, we don’t need that level of specificity to understand the meaning of the parables. But we do need some history, some familiarity with the story of Israel. We need Ezekiel.
Ezekiel was among the exiles in Babylon when God called him to the prophetic ministry. He was also a priest of a Temple that was no more, a priest of a God who seemed to have abandoned his people, a priest of a people in exile and captivity. Why did all that happen? So many reasons, but not least the failure of the shepherds of Israel. So, Ezekiel writes:
Ezekiel 34:1–6 (ESV): 1 The word of the Lord came to me: 2 “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord God: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3 You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. 4 The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. 5 So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; 6 they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.
This is a damning indictment of the shepherds of Israel: the kings, the priests, the elders of the people, the false prophets who claimed to speak in the name of the Lord — all those whose responsibility was to care for the people, to feed, to strengthen, to heal, to bind up, to seek out and bring back the wandering and the lost. Instead of feeding the sheep, the shepherds fed on the sheep. Instead of protecting the sheep from predators, the shepherds preyed on the sheep. As a result, the sheep were scattered to the nations, taken into exile. And the Lord came in judgment upon the shepherds:
Ezekiel 34:7–10 (ESV): 7 “Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 8 As I live, declares the Lord God, surely because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild beasts, since there was no shepherd, and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep, 9 therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 10 Thus says the Lord God, Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require my sheep at their hand and put a stop to their feeding the sheep. No longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, that they may not be food for them.
Here, God’s logic runs counter to ours; his thoughts are not our thoughts, nor his ways our ways. Scattering the sheep into exile is a mercy, because it rescues them from the false shepherds of Israel who have been preying upon the sheep, who have been leading the sheep toward destruction. Exile will destroy these false shepherds and prepare the sheep to recognize and receive the good shepherd:
Ezekiel 34:11–16 (ESV): 11 “For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. 12 As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. 13 And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country. 14 I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God. 16 I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.
So, God himself will become the good shepherd of Israel. God himself will seek out the lost and scattered sheep. God himself will create a new flock out of the nations. God himself will bring back the strays, bind up the injured, strengthen and feed them all in justice. “Good shepherd” talk is God talk. The arrival of the good shepherd — the one who will do all these things — is the arrival of God. And it is judgment upon any remaining false shepherds. This is the context in which we must understand Jesus’ parables of the good shepherd. When Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd,” he is proclaiming the arrival of God, the end of exile, the creation of a new flock, all taking place in and through himself. Was that difficult to understand? Yes. Was it outrageous and divisive? Yes.
John 10:20–21 (ESV): 20 Many of them said, “He has a demon, and is insane; why listen to him?” 21 Others said, “These are not the words of one who is oppressed by a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?”
Jesus has damning words, words of judgment, for the false shepherds — certainly the Scribes and Pharisees, the Priests and Sadducees, and perhaps even the puppet king Herod and the emperor Tiberius: strangers, thieves and robbers, hirelings — all of whom come only to steal and kill and destroy.
How are the sheep to distinguish between the false shepherds and the good shepherd? Jesus mentions two ways.
First, there is the shepherd’s voice. I am not really an animal person, though Clare and Mary Kathleen have forced a few cats on me that I have come to grudgingly respect and finally even to enjoy. These cats tolerate me, but they know and respond to my wife and daughter. The cats hear their voices, and they come running. Sheep, too, know the shepherd’s voice and come running. Speaking of himself as the good shepherd, Jesus says:
John 10:3–5 (ESV): 3 To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. 5 A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.”
That is precisely what happened in Jesus’ ministry. He taught as one with authority. He spoke as no man man had ever spoken before. People recognized in his voice, in his words, something different, something genuine, something true, something powerful. And though they might not have known precisely what it was, it was the voice of God: the voice that had called all things into being, the voice that had called Abram into covenant, the voice that had called slaves out of Egypt, the voice that had spoken life-giving commandments, the voice that had called the straying people to return through the words of the prophets, the voice who had sought out the people in exile and had brought them home. It was the voice of God speaking again in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Some recognized it and followed him. Some recognized it and opposed him. Others did not recognize it at all.
For this latter group — the ones who did not recognize the good shepherd’s voice — Jesus offered another identifying trait: self-sacrifice. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. A thief or robber flees, a hireling runs from danger. But the good shepherd stands his ground and lays down his life to save the sheep. This is the penultimate mark of authenticity. One lies beyond it: the good shepherd has the love to lay down his life and the power to take it up again. The disciples who heard these parables of Jesus did not understand them. But, they would when the good shepherd laid down his life on the cross and took it up again three days later.
So, that is how I understand the good shepherd parables of Jesus in John 10, in the context of Ezekiel 34. But now I move from teaching to preaching, and from preaching to meddling.
There is only one good shepherd — the Lord Jesus Christ — and one flock made up of all those who hear and recognize his voice and follow him. But, there are many false shepherds and false flocks out there calling to us and welcoming us to join up and follow. Some false shepherds are subtle and look and sound, at least for a time, like the real thing. How can we avoid their deception?
Get to know Jesus, deeply: the timbre of his voice and the content of his words. Immerse yourself in the Gospels. If anyone speaks words that Jesus would not say, he or she is, in that moment, a false shepherd. This applies to deacons, priests, bishops, politicians, pundits and to everyone with influence. Do not listen to them. Tune your ear only to the voice of the good shepherd.
Watch for self-sacrificial behavior; this is what you will see from a good shepherd. A thief, a hireling, a false shepherd will be self-serving, fleecing the flock. The early church enrolled widows; you see that in Acts and in Paul’s letters. The church provided these women a daily distribution of food. The widows wouldn’t get fat from this fare or rich from the contributions of the church, but neither would they starve or become destitute. It was subsistence. I have read — and it rings true to me —that bishops were similarly enrolled. The church provided them subsistence to free them from having to earn a living so that they might devote themselves to shepherding the flock of Christ. But it did not make them rich, and perhaps not even comfortable. Contrast this with those megachurch preachers who are dissatisfied with the accoutrements of their current Gulf Stream jet and say they need the newest model to serve the Lord effectively. And, being consecrated a bishop in the early church was often considered a death sentence due to ongoing persecution. This is what it looks like to be a good shepherd under the Good Shepherd Jesus Christ.
In this limited sense, then, the good shepherd parables are not so difficult after all. Listen for the voice of Jesus in the words of those who claim to be good shepherds. Look for the self-sacrificial life of Jesus in the actions of those who claim to be good shepherds. Follow only good shepherds, who themselves follow the Good Shepherd, our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.