Thought for the day
The image of the Good Shepherd is profoundly reassuring. We hear it today in John’s gospel and elsewhere in the Bible. It evokes a tremendous feeling of being cared for—the consolation of faith. Even in these difficult days, we need such reassurance. At the same time, the metaphor is used in a dissonant way: no regular shepherd, however caring, gives his life for his sheep! Cosy familiarity can dull the sense of shock: what is going on here? The gentle pastoral language suddenly gives way to sacrifice, as the shepherd becomes the lamb of God.
Jesus our shepherd, we know your care for us was costly as you laid down your life and took it up again. Help us to know again “the great events that gave us new life” in you, that we may hear you and follow you in all we do.
John 10:11 I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired man, when he sees the wolf coming, abandons the sheep and runs away, because he is not the shepherd and the sheep are not his. Then the wolf harries the flock and scatters the sheep. 13 The man runs away because he is a hired man and cares nothing for the sheep.
John 10:14 ‘I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, 15 as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 But there are other sheep of mine, not belonging to this fold; I must lead them as well, and they too will listen to my voice. There will then be one flock, one shepherd. 17 The Father loves me because I lay down my life, to receive it back again. 18 No one takes it away from me; I am laying it down of my own free will. I have the right to lay it down, and I have the right to receive it back again; this charge I have received from my Father.’
This remarkably beautiful and well-known passage reflects a deep meditation on the meaning of Jesus’ life and death, a meditation that comes from the spiritual guide of the Johannine community, although based on authentic Jesus material.
Kind of writing
This is a kind of (r)evolving meditation, very typical of the Fourth Gospel. In a graduated series, the writer invites us to a deeper insight into the love of God shown through the care of Jesus for the flock.
Part I: Jesus contrasts himself with others (vv. 1-5)
Narrator reports the listeners’ incomprehension (v. 6)
Part II: Jesus as the sheep gate and as the good shepherd (vv. 7-18)
Amen, Amen, I say to you: I am the gate of the sheep. (v. 7)
I am the good shepherd (vv. 11-13)
I am the good shepherd (vv.14-16)
The Father loves me (vv. 17-18)
Narrator describes the listeners’ divided reaction (vv.19-21)
Old Testament background
In the ancient Near East, the metaphor of shepherd for the ruler was a natural one. God was also a kind of king and so also a shepherd. This is found positively and negatively throughout the Bible, from the book of Genesis onwards.
“A Psalm of David. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long. ” (Psalms 23:1-6; see also Ps 28:9; 49:14; 78:71; 80:1)
He blessed Joseph, and said, “The God before whom my ancestors Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day.” (Genesis 48:15)
As I live, says the Lord God, because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild animals, 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.” (Ezekiel 34:8)
“I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd.” (Ezekiel 34:23)
“My servant David shall be king over them; and they shall all have one shepherd. They shall follow my ordinances and be careful to observe my statutes.” (Ezekiel 37:24)
New Testament foreground
Shepherd language is present throughout the Gospels, as a metaphor for the ministry of Jesus and for exploring his death.
When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. (Matthew 9:36)
What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? (Matthew 18:12)
“Then Jesus said to them, “You will all become deserters because of me this night; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’” (Matthew 26:31)
It looks very much as if this meditation is an expansion of the parable of the lost sheep. It is typical of this Evangelist to develop conservatively—the innovative reflections nearly always have roots in material going back to the historical Jesus.
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-9)
Verse 11 A thematic sentence opens the meditation. The I am sentences of this Gospel reveal a deep insight into the identity of Jesus, applying to Jesus the name of God from Exodus 3:14. Notice that real shepherds, however attached to their flock, never “lay down their lives” for the sheep!
Verse 12 This is to contrast with the good shepherd. The first contrast is external and we see what the “hired hand” does. Reflecting Ezek 34, the writer acknowledges that not all shepherds are shepherds.
Verse 13 This contrast presents the inner life of the hired hand, who lacks “care for the sheep”.
Verse 14 The thematic statement is repeated. “Know” here means a great deal more than being informed: it is an intimate, loving mutuality, which sustains the sheep and motivates the shepherd.
Verse 15 “Just as” sentences have a special force in this Gospel: the loving “knowledge” between the Father and the Son is not only a kind of parallel to the loving knowledge between Jesus and believers. Rather, the self-same love is actualised in both. Then follows a mention of laying down his life, which takes up v.11 and looks forward to vv.17-18.
Verse 16 This is an acknowledgement that some do not recognise Jesus. We think automatically of “other churches” but most likely what is meant here is Jews who have not come to Jesus. The long-term vision is communion, one family in the faith.
Verse 17 Vv.17 and 18 belong together as unit. Shepherding language is suspended and we are left with a more existential articulation of the Jesus’ death and resurrection. Because he is the resurrection and the life (ch. 11) Jesus has power to lay it down and to take it up again.
Verse 18 The death of Jesus was a choice. Historically, this is certainly so; however, the Fourth Gospel, keen to display the love of God in Jesus, underlines the radical freedom of Jesus as he gives himself for love of us.
Pointers for prayer
1. There is a qualitative difference between a casual acquaintance and a relationship characterised by understanding and care. What changes have you experienced in your relationships as your love and knowledge of the other increased? What was it like for you to experience that change?
2. The good shepherd “lays down his life for the sheep”. When has your care for another led you to “lay down your life” for that person, e.g., as a friend, parent, spouse, son or daughter? When you have known another to do this for you?
3. The parable also suggests that relationships should not be closed but open. Perhaps you have experienced the truth of the saying that love shared is love strengthened.
4. Jesus speaks of the freedom of the Good Shepherd in laying down his life. Faced with the needs of others, we can at times feel trapped into looking after them, caught by duty, obligation, or guilt. We can become like the hired hands who do a job without care for the person. Perhaps you have experienced both attitudes, caring for others under duress and by free choice. What difference did it make when you chose to care for the other, even in circumstances where you had little option?
5. What do these experiences of love and care in human relationships reveal to you about God’s love for you?
God of lasting love, fulfil your plan of salvation to gather into one fold the peoples of the whole world.
Let everyone on earth recognise your Christ as the Good Shepherd who freely lays down his life for all to take it up again in power.
Grant this through Jesus Christ, the resurrection and the life, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit God for ever and ever. Amen.