“11 ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12The 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. 13The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16I 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. 17For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.’”
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
In our text today, Jesus is speaking in a parable to the temple leaders of his time, and we are eavesdropping. It’s a special time of year when Jesus tells this story, the Feast of the Dedication, which we know today as Hanukkah, a time when God’s people would celebrate “the rededication of the Temple after the victory of Judas Maccabeus in 2nd century BCE”. (Debie Thomas, “A Shepherd Who is Good,” JOURNEY WITH JESUSA WEEKLY WEBZINE FOR THE GLOBAL CHURCH, SINCE 2004, April 18, 2021.) My sermonizing companion this week, Debie Thomas, points out that Jesus is speaking as he walks “in the Temple itself – the very place the Jewish people venerated as representative of their unique, covenantal relationship with God.” (Debie Thomas, “A Shepherd Who is Good.”)
So, you’d think that Jesus might use a parable that had something to do with the temple space itself given the festival being celebrated. Maybe say “I am the good priest” or “I am the good temple groundskeeper”. But instead, he says “I am the good shepherd.” This is an image of someone who was almost never inside a physical building, someone who smelled like the elements where they slept every night, the rain, snow, mud, dust, and heat, someone who was unhoused, someone who lived their life on the fringes, the wilderness places, at-risk of robbers, wild animals, and other dangers. What does this good shepherd image have to do with the gathered community of the temple?
Let’s remember that in the chapter leading up to this, the temple leaders had cast a man born blind out of the temple after Jesus had given him sight. They believed this man to be blind because of his sins or the sins of his family members, and Jesus had gone against the rules by refusing to adjudicate this man’s deserving-ness and giving him sight on the Sabbath. The temple leaders, responsible for the physical space where God’s presence was said to dwell, had made that space all about policing who is in and who is out, exclusion, and social control.
And it’s right after this that Jesus talks about being the good shepherd, “good” here being a word in Greek that means something more like “model”. The model shepherd. Someone who made a life in risky wilderness places for one reason: because the shepherd loves the sheep, will lay down Her life for the sheep, and will stop at nothing to bring other sheep together in one fold so that everyone is included.
And now we can understand why this parable carried such an offensive edge to those charged with overseeing temple life, causing them just verses after this passage to pick up stones to kill Jesus. Because Jesus’ use of the model shepherd image was his way of calling the temple leaders on the carpet for their complete distortion of their call. The temple leaders had become the hired hands, who saw the wolf coming and left the sheep, running away and leaving them vulnerable. Because at the end of the day, they had made the temple a place to hoard their own power and wealth instead of a place that cared for the sheep. They had cast the man born blind out into the wilderness places to fend for himself.
Meanwhile, Jesus’ life and ministry embodied the very opposite. For just verses before this parable, Jesus learned of the man being driven from the temple and went to find him, revealing himself to this man as the Messiah. And that man who had been driven out began worshipping Jesus. Because Jesus is the model shepherd, who makes it his business to dwell in solidarity with the ones the system has rejected and abandoned. Jesus, the model shepherd, makes his home with those on the edges, where God’s presence dwells.
The hired hands’ patterns of abandonment and fear-based exclusion are all around us and inside us. We lament them even as we participate in and perpetuate them. The hired hands are a society where financial, educational, and governmental institutions continue to systematically abandon communities of color, leaving them vulnerable to the wolves of white supremacist policing and prisons. The hired hands are our immersion in capitalism, which trains us to value people for their productivity, inculturating us to throw them away when they don’t fit into our white-washed worlds of respectability. The hired hands are our own tendency to hide the wilderness places in our own lives from other people, which ends up isolating us from community, drowning us in fear and shame as we suffer alone through the many wolves this life brings our way.
But our Jesus is not like these easily frightened, profit-hungry hired hands who run away at the first sign of trouble. Our model shepherd embodies the real grit of love and he won’t give up on his sheep. He loves the sheep, laying down his life for them. He knows the sheep intimately, recognizing each unique bleat as the voice of one of his dear ones. And Jesus can go to the places of risk in our world because his Father knows him and he knows the Father. God’s got his back and our shepherd makes that space for us too. We, the sheep, are not safe because we go to safe places. We are safe because we follow the Shepherd who will never let us go. As Jesus says just verses after our passage today, “No one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28b).
So, in these uncertain times, let’s be a flock committed to immersing ourselves in that kind of irrevocable belonging, that kind of radical love of the Shepherd, who will never allow us to be snatched from Her hand. Let’s make every activity, every committee meeting, every gathering about reminding each other of this belovedness that can never be taken away. May our togetherness be all about fueling up with a love that sends us back out again into the wilderness places where the shepherd makes a home, to the county and city meetings where power makes decisions that impact the oppressed, to the streets in protest, to the Alabama camp where our unhoused siblings continue to suffer injustice, to the person in our lives whom society has deemed undeserving of love and attention, to the tender places in our own hearts that God longs for us to offer to one another in community. May we dedicate the entirety of our lives to the way of the model shepherd who has shown us the path of life so that the flock welcomes more and more sheep into the beloved community each one of us was made for. Amen.