The Fourth Sunday of Easter: Good Shepherd Sunday ~ May 3rd , 2020 (Based on John 10: 1-10)
Today is often called Good Shepherd Sunday. Why? Well, because in our lectionary, the schedule of scripture readings we follow, on this fourth Sunday of Easter, we always read the 23rd Psalm and a section from the 10th Chapter of John, from what’s come to be known as “The Good Shepherd Discourse”.
The image of God as shepherd is an ancient one, and well known over the ages, as the 23rd Psalm attests to. The shepherd’s role is to be the care provider for the sheep; see to it that they have quality food, ie. good pastures, clean water, that they are safe from predation and provide care when the sheep are ill or hurt. Jesus takes this shepherd’s role, and applies it to himself. In verse 11, which wasn’t included in our reading for today, Jesus even says “I am the Good Shepherd.”
John has Jesus beginning this discourse talking about thieves and bandits who hop the fences to bypass the gate, because the gatekeeper, guarding the gate, won’t let anyone but the shepherds into the sheep enclosure. In biblical days, when it was time for the sheep to be marketed, shepherds would bring those sheep and lambs into town from the outlying pastures. The animals were held communally in an enclosure or sheep fold and a gatekeeper would be employed to keep watch and prevent theft. Obviously the thief’s intention is to steal the sheep for a quick profit; they have no real desire for all the time and trouble it takes to care for a flock!
If you have any working knowledge of sheep, you will know that what Jesus say’s about sheep behaviour is true. Sheep really do get to know the voice of their shepherd, and they will come when called. And sheep will run from a stranger’s voice. Let me illustrate: When my husband goes away to a sale or a show, I am the back-up chore person. So the sheep don’t see me on a really regular basis. From time to time, we will have older lambs on pasture that also require grain, so when my husband goes to the barn he’ll call out to the lambs. They know his voice and will come running into the barn, in fact will beat him there. When I do the chores, I’ll call them and they either run the other way, or ignore me. When I’m feeding in the barn, even if I wear exactly the same colour of coveralls and a baseball cap, I can’t trick them. So when I get into the pen to feed them, they scatter—the more skittish breeds will actually try climbing the walls to get away from me. When he feeds them, it’s all he can do to push his way through them to get to the feeder.
Sheep will come to the voice of their shepherd. They will not come to a stranger; they will run the other way.
So what was Jesus actually saying in this parable, and just as importantly, to whom was he saying it? Well, some commentators I read suggested that John is using this story to reassure the Christians in his community. After Jesus’ death, the followers of Jesus were ostracized, shunned, attacked or even killed for their beliefs in their crucified and resurrected Messiah. Another hint, this parable comes right after John tells the story of Jesus’ healing of the man who was born blind. A quick recap of that story will be helpful. The man is called before a tribunal of temple authorities on three occasions to testify to his new found vision—they even call the blind man’s parents to testify to his blindness, yet still the Pharisees—the temple authorities cannot or will not believe that the healing was done by Jesus. They even throw the newly sighted man out of the synagogue because he tells the tribunal “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. … Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” (John 9: 30-33) The temple authorities kick him out of the temple community, effectively socially isolating him completely from his family and friends. Jesus hears about it, seeks the man out and reveals himself to him as the Messiah. And the man becomes a follower of Jesus. Jesus later comes across some Pharisees who question him about this miracle and Jesus tells them they are in essence themselves being willfully blind to the truth right before their eyes. And then he tells them “… anyone who sneaks over the wall of a sheepfold, rather than going through the gate, must surely be a thief and a robber!” He’s telling the temple authorities that they really don’t want to be shepherds to the people in their temple, their ‘flock’. They don’t want all the work that shepherding entails, because they don’t really care for their flock like a true shepherd should. The temple authorities lived off the proceeds of the temple, which came from the offerings given by the people, the money paid for the animal sacrifices, the temple taxes etc. They wanted the people to listen to them, to follow their interpretations of the law, because the temple profited from the people, and they profited from the temple’s proceeds.
This Good Shepherd discourse is John’s way of reminding the persecuted followers that Jesus was their Shepherd, in the fullest sense of the word, he was their Good Shepherd. And even though he was no longer physically present, Jesus’ presence was still there with them, through thick and thin. And in those days, were they ever in the thick of it! This parable tells all with ears to hear, that we, like the man with his new found vision, can be reassured, because Jesus really cares about those in his flock as a true and good shepherd cares for their sheep.
Ok, that’s good! Next, the story takes a bit of a verbal twist. Not only is Jesus the Shepherd, but, he says, I am the gate. Huh? A second and seemingly unrelated metaphor in the same story. So Jesus is the shepherd and the gate? How can he be both? This is admittedly a bit confusing. Let’s see if we can make some sense of this.
What does a gate do? It keeps some things out and other things in, for example keeping the sheep inside the sheep enclosure safe from wolves, or thieves. Or, think of it like locking the door of your house. The latched gate, the locked door, provides protection and security. When we are in Jesus’ flock, we are under the care of the Shepherd and Jesus provides us the protection from the pretenders—those thieves and bandits–those who only want us for what we can provide for them! When we stand behind Jesus, we are protected in his house, under his abundant, loving and gracious care. Our cups runneth over!
So, let’s go back to those ewe lambs that wouldn’t come into the barn when I called them. After a couple of days, they’d stop running away when they heard me call, a couple would even raise their heads and watch me, and it isn’t too long before they come to associate my voice with going to the barn and getting their feed. They’ve learned to listen to a new voice, their substitute shepherd, because of a positive reward—in their case, food! And it’s not long before they come when I call. There’s a lesson in this or us too!
In a world where we have so many voices constantly flooding us, clamouring for our attention, bombarding us with information telling us we will become healthier, richer, more knowledgeable, more attractive if you just do this, or buy that, you could say that these are the voices of substitute or pretend shepherds—not the real thing. They’re vying for our attention and our dollars, of course, by making us false promises, false assurances of what it takes to make us secure, happy and peaceful. True happiness, true peace and feelings of security cannot be bought.
So, the questions, I guess, are whose voice are we listening to? How do we hear Jesus’ voice, how do we hear the voice of our true shepherd in the clamour of all the false shepherds? Well, to hear Jesus, we need to really start listening. Take time away from the clamouring voices that can drown out Jesus’ voice. Turn off the screens, close the papers and magazines. Take some time in nature, when and if you can. Walk a trail, or even the quiet of a cemetery! Read the bible, — a modern translation is easier to understand, and hear the words Jesus says like he’s talking to you! Dedicate some time each day to sit with Jesus, first thing in the morning or just before bedtime are best. That’s what prayer is you know, just talking to Jesus. Even 10 minutes a day! Not sure how to do that? Daily prayer books can be most helpful. Or start off with a prayer you know by heart–the Lord’s prayer is always a good one! Begin by giving thanks for your blessings, and then just share your concerns with Jesus, about yourself, or others who you know need comfort and love. And then stay quiet for a bit; remember to give some time to listen! That’s the hard part for me, sitting quietly long enough to hear. It’s a discipline, and something I need to constantly work on.
Jesus said he was the Good Shepherd, the true shepherd on whom we can count to lead us to abundant life. Jesus said he was the gate, the protection we need from those things and people that try to steal us from listening to our Shepherd’s voice and ways, and lead us astray. Jesus came that we may have life, abundant life. So we can live with him, in the House of the Lord, forever.
Oh yes, those ewe lambs that had learned to come when I called them? They don’t forget their real shepherd’s voice. When my husband comes back home, and he calls to them—they beat him to the barn!
by Rev’d JoAnn Todd, Rector, The Regional Ministry of Hope