There is a presentation of Jesus found in the longer biblical context of Jesus’ healing the man born blind that has become iconic. The event itself ignited a major confrontation between the man and the religious and political shepherds of Israel. Sensing that they were losing control they sought to minimize what Jesus had done in healing the man. When they sought to impeach his testimony he was uncompromising: “Here is an astonishing thing!” he said to them “You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing”. Their response to that was the fury of holding an indefensible position and knowing it. They replied: “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to lecture us” (9:34)? That’s sort of like saying: “Yeah, and your mother wears combat boots…” Jesus joins the man in confronting the religious leaders.
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The 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. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.
I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.
I 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.
Weekly Trends: Compared to last week heavy slaughter lambs steady to 4.00 higher; light slaughter lambs firm to 5.00 higher, instances 15.00-20.00 higher; slaughter ewes mostly steady to 5.00 lower; feeder lambs not well tested.
Slaughter Lambs: Choice and Prime 2-3 90-160 lbs: shorn and wooled 100-175 lbs 87.00-94.00;
Domestic wool trading on a clean basis was moderate this week. With 1,797,500 lbs of confirmed sales this week. Demand moderate to good.
Pelt activity this week compared to last week: Packer sorted green salted pelts steady on nearly inactive trading. Demand remains very light. Asian and European markets remain at a standstill.
When I think of shepherds I think how early spring time was hard on a man who volunteered with the Four H program in Warren County, Virginia because of his having to assist his ewes in the safe delivery of the new lambs. He taught the kids, that is the human variety, how to judge sheep for the market. Sheep would never have become an item of use in sacrificial worship were they not a precious commodity, a major source of food and clothing. Trade is made in their wool, their pelts and their carcasses. No way is it understandable that the owner of a flock of sheep, good, bad or indifferent, would or should lay down his life for them. They are raised to lay down their life for the economic benefit of the one who owns them. To suggest to someone raised in a culture dependent on sheep as a commodity it is either patent nonsense that a good shepherd was one who laid down his life for sheep or someone is trying to make a point.
And Jesus was doing just that. The metaphor comes to life again and again, as well as the proposition that God is the good shepherd in contrast to those who abuse their power in Jeremiah, Micah, Zechariah. He draws it directly from the Prophet Ezekiel which has by far the most extensive discourse on God’s people as sheep and their leaders as shepherds.
The word of the Lord came to me: Ezekiel wrote in Chapter 34, 2Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. 4You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.
For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. 12As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep.
I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. 16I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.
Israel’s religious and political leadership who were with Jesus that day were well-versed in the Mosaic Law and its Jubilee demands. They were students of Ezekiel. When Jesus said: “I am the good shepherd…. I lay down my life for the sheep no one in the crowd missed the accusation. There are two types of shepherds that care for the flock of God. There is “the good shepherd” and then there are the bad shepherds. The uncomfortable question posed was: “Which kind of shepherd are you? Are you one who casts his lot with Jesus and his counter-cultural community and thus work for an equitable distribution of the wealth of the nation and for equal justice for all? Or are you one who wants to remain associated with and benefit from the oppression and exploitation of the poor – which was exactly Ezekiel’s point!
Jesus’ message left the Pharisees divided. Some said, “He has a demon and is out of his mind”. But other leaders say: “These are not the words of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind” (10:21, referring back to the miracle in 9:1-34)? So, they remain divided and unwilling to make the commitment that could cost them their ecclesiastical and social status. They do not realize that to not make a decision, to not come down clearly and publicly on the side of Jesus, to not stand for justice and economic equality is to make a decision.
The biblical narrative sets up the contrast between the Good Shepherd and a hired man. The difference is the good shepherd actually owns the sheep. The Good Shepherd has a vested interest in their safety. The life of the sheep however is not an absolute matter. He needs live sheep not dead ones. His intention is to bring them to market so he wants them all and he prefers them to be healthy, fat and productive.
For a second time Jesus says “I am the good shepherd”, announcing a second characteristic beyond ownership: a mutually reciprocal knowledge between the ideal shepherd and his sheep. The shepherd’s claim over the sheep is proven by his knowledge of the marks and ways of his sheep and his sheep’s knowledge of him by coming to his voice and submission to his hand. What a wonderful thing to celebrate – that we are known and we know the shepherd’s voice.
As comforting, even warm and fuzzy, as this image of the good shepherd may seem, it’s really quite unsettling. We wrestle with the temptation to limit the scope of the fold. So this is where things become more difficult; it challenges us as to how to make room for one another in the fold of God’s love. It seems like we ought to find it easy and even natural to relax into the warmth of God’s care, to move over and make room for everyone else. And yet this biblical image of religious leaders disregarding the worth of each individual in the eyes of God is just as powerful today as in any age. Some people have a hard time not thinking about who’s in the flock, and who isn’t, who’s loved by God, and who isn’t…or at least, who isn’t loved by God quite as much, or in the same way, as are we. And yet, it’s not up to us to decide who’s in or who’s out. The text simply informs us that Jesus has “other sheep” and that he intends to draw them in, too. The requirement for their inclusion is no different than for us: that they are known by the shepherd, owned by the good shepherd, and know the good shepherd. That is not something left for us to decide. There is no singular form for the word for sheep – being a sheep offers only unity. Hearing the voice of the shepherd draws the sheep to him – this is what constitutes the flock. There is nothing here about unity of organization, unity of belief, unity of ritual. Our unity does not consist in what we believe, that is, what we’ve cobbled together and called theology – our unity is in our being known by, loved by, and owned by the good Shepherd. It’s understandable that we’d rather not talk about anything that might disturb the peace and quiet tranquility of our little flock, safely gathered behind our church doors. In this case, in particular, it may feel like too much of a challenge, even to risk shining the light of the gospel on our communal decisions about the rights and the very lives of immigrants to this country. How does this text challenge us as we face the controversial issue of poverty, homelessness, immigrant rights, restorative justice and even ecumenicity in the United States? Jesus did not exclude people based on the standards of the day. He embraced the outcast, the oppressed, and the overlooked. John makes it clear that the work of gathering the flock belongs to Jesus and God, our task is to provide a space where all are welcome.
Although the imagery seems outdated, have we outgrown our desire for someone to love us fiercely and forever the way only the truly good shepherd can? In our quiet and secret moments, when we yearn for someone stronger and wiser to take care of us, it is important to remember that as sheep our first obligation is to listen for the voice of the shepherd, a voice which we can hear and a voice, when heard, that we know. This passage helps us, like the early Christians, to understand who Jesus is, and how he loves and knows us. It also helps us to understand ourselves as loved and cherished and known by a tender and caring God. This ideal shepherd brings abundant life for the sheep who are united not because they believe exactly the same thing but because they are loved.
Being enfolded in love by the Good Shepherd is an image of God’s love for Jesus and for us. We can’t be enfolded in love by someone who doesn’t want to get “up close,” can we? Jesus has shared our human experience and knows intimately what it means to suffer and to die. This shepherd knows what it’s like to be a sheep. He is the sheep whisperer. No wonder that the sheep can trust this Good Shepherd. Belonging to him, knowing him and being known by him, and hearing him shapes us as a community of faith.