Easter 4: 7 May John 10:1-10
The shepherd image is rich and traditional, even if it no longer forms part of everyday life for most people and reflects practices quite foreign to the sheep farming with which most are familiar. Like images of kings and queens, which have long since lost their relevance for most in contemporary society, even where monarchies survive, this is a persistent image. Images have their own life. The Latin translation, ‘pastor’, has tended to associate the shepherd image with ministry. Originally it was most common as a metaphor for rulers, as far back as the Pharaohs. It was a way of describing royal responsibilities which included caring for subjects, the flock. It was apt symbolism when David became the shepherd king and the model for messianic hope.
These associations are swirling around in the background as we consider our passage. The sheep are unambiguously people who are to be cared for. That fact, in itself, represents a value implicit in the image. For us it might evoke Jesus’ parable about caring even for the one lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7), which Matthew then applies to care for members of the church who have fallen morally (18:12-14), an important value in a vengeful, unforgiving age. John’s Jesus is ambitious to make the whole world a flock for divine love, far beyond Israel (10:16; 3:16).
These are the assumptions within which 10:1-6 focuses on leadership. When John reports in 10:6 that Jesus’ hearers did not know what the parable meant, John’s hearers are being challenged to get it and so are we. This was not too difficult with the image of call and response. Perhaps imagining a pen where many sheep perhaps from more than one flock are protected overnight, the hearer would know the common practice. Sheep belonging to a particular shepherd would follow that shepherd through the gate in the morning out into the new day.
The parable may imply the instruction: make sure you listen to his voice! It might also be explaining why some sheep belong and why some do not, an assurance for those who belong that they are special and a comfort for the failure to attract others. The parable of the sower also came to serve that function. John’s gospel has a number of sayings which suggest a closed system according to which only those in the light respond to the light (eg. 3:19-21) and only those who are drawn may come (eg. 6:44). It is important to recognise their function and not to make them the basis for exclusive systems, because it is equally apparent that whoever hears and responds may come and will move from darkness to light. The paradox is promising.
There is more, however, to the parable than urging response and explaining rejection. It is warning about rival claims to leadership. In the context of Jesus’ ministry which forms the primary setting for the gospel story those rivals are the other Jewish leaders with whom Jesus is in dispute. In the context of the gospel they are doubtless also other Jewish leaders who compete for the loyalty of John’s sheep. The dangers envisaged here may be a range of rivals from other Jewish leaders even to Christian Jewish leaders and, perhaps, non Jewish as well. If we read this from the world of 1 John we would recognise such leaders as those who disputed the writer’s teaching and had led their Christians out to a new Spirit-inspired understanding of Christ which elevated him above the flesh and blood which appeared to compromise his divinity (2:19; 4:1-6).
It is difficult to discern how far these disputes already formed the background for the gospel, but it is clear here and in Jesus’ parting words and prayer (especially John 15-17), that disunity was a major threat. Certainly the image interprets Jesus’ conflicts with ‘the Jews’ at the feast, as 10:26-30 show. There the association of shepherd and ‘messiah-king’ is assumed (10:22-25). But like in most of John’s gospel, contemporary concerns are never far away. There is an ongoing tension between the will to include all and the need to explain rejection and console the flock who respond. The latter is quite dangerous and in some hands leads to hate and exclusivity (including antisemitism). Yet this is the gospel grounded in John 3:16 and a vision of unity, which ultimately wants to embrace all in compassion.
What seems to many a romantic and gentle image is in fact a very theologically political statement. Words like ‘thief’, ‘brigand’, ‘fleeing’, ‘steal and slaughter and kill’, indicate the serious tenor of the statements. It is not ‘nice’. It invites us to look out for dangers in our own times and to recognise that they will sometimes present themselves as religiously plausible. Thinking critically about theology remains crucial to the leader/pastor/preacher’s task.
The passage ends on a note to celebrate: the goal is ‘life, abundant life’ (10:10). This shorthand summary of the good news needs unpacking. It brings us back to the centre: God’s will and intent. For John that is rooted in God’s love. God’s being in love, in relationship, is the source and pattern for a vision which might include all in such unity. Globalised, it engages us in a vision which embraces diversity and difference, but has no place for exploitation and marginalisation. ‘Shepherd’ first scratched itself on stone as advice to rulers about social justice and care for the poor. It is therefore bigger than the Jerusalem disputes about Jesus and the tensions of first century Asia Minor. It is ultimately a way of engaging and being engaged by God and being called out into the day.
First Reading:: Easter
4: 7 May Acts 2:42-47
Epistle: Easter 4: 7 May 1 Peter 2:19-25