Theological Insights from a Modern Perspective

The Good Shepherd

TheGoodShepherdJohn 10:1-16 “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber;  but he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep.  To him the gatekeeper opens; the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.  When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.  A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” 

“This figure Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.  So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep.  All who came before me are thieves and robbers; but the sheep did not heed them.  I am the door; if any one enters by me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture.  The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hireling and not a shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hireling and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.”

Everyone has heard this parable, or at the very least the reference to The Good Shepherd. We start reading it at the beginning (John 10:1) or what we take to be the beginning, but it is not. To really understand what Jesus is saying we need to back up a bit, to the beginning of Chapter 9 where Jesus heals a blind man on the Sabbath. The Pharisees hear of this, accost the man and his parents because of his being healed on the Sabbath and not denouncing Jesus. The man is then cast out of the synagogue; Jesus finds him, introduces himself as the one who healed him, and then makes a pronouncement that is overheard by the Pharisees, Jesus then condemns the Pharisees:

The Man Born Blind

The Man Born Blind

“For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this, and they said to him, “Are we also blind?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.”

It is at this point the Jesus delivers the parable of the Good Shepherd. If we see this in context then what we discover is that the Good Shepherd is not so much a lesson of caring for each other as it is an accusation against the would-be shepherds of the flock of Israel – the Pharisees. It was their job to care for the needs of the people of Israel, and they failed miserably. Jesus delivers this parable and, at the end, makes the statement that he is the Good Shepherd, with the inference that the Pharisees are the “bad” shepherds. Let’s look at the parable with some insight on what the relationship between the people of Israel and the Pharisees was and should be, and how Jesus fits into the story.

Ancient Sheepfold

Ancient Sheepfold

Few people today known what a sheepfold looks like, it was a square or circle made of wood or stone with a single opening. In that opening was placed a gate that could be opened to allow the sheep in or out. The job of the shepherd was a lonely one, for he would spend the day in the fields with the sheep, and the night sleeping by the gate to guard it against intruders, human or otherwise. He would, literally, guard the sheep with his life. As a result, the sheep would come to know the shepherd intimately, as someone to follow unquestioningly. They would know his voice and follow him where ever he would lead.

Sheep have no way to protect themselves, so they are reliant upon a good shepherd to protect them, a bad shepherd would run off at the sight of danger to protect himself allowing the sheep to suffer whatever fate awaited them. And this is the point Jesus was making, let’s understand the role of the Pharisee and the flock of Israel.

In Jesus’ time Israel had no army, they were an occupied nation with a less-than-friendly Roman force. The Pharisees were the intermediaries between the Roman government and the people of Israel; but, like any political group, they were more interested in preserving their status than in the lives of the people. To be fair, it was a tenuous situation with militant “terrorists” on the one side working to disrupt the Roman rule, and the Roman forces on the other side tasked with keeping the peace at all costs, and the Pharisees caught in the middle. Still, the public welfare was the job they were tasked with, and they were doing a poor job at it, and Jesus’ concern was over their roles as the spiritual heads of the people, and their duty to care and provide for the people.

In ancient Israel there was no hospital, no workers compensation, no welfare system provided by the state. All of this was the responsibility of the synagogue and was part of the reason for tithing. If a woman was widowed then it was up to her family to care for her, if she died childless then the responsibility fell on the synagogue to provide for her basic needs. This was the same for the men who were unable to work, either due to injury or illness. While he traveled throughout Israel and Judea Jesus could see widows and cripples begging for their daily needs, signs that the synagogues and the Pharisees were shirking their duties. So where was the money going? If not to provide for the needy then to the private coffers of the Pharisees, this was obvious from their lifestyles and it angered Jesus. So, when the Pharisees came after this man whom they were responsible for, accosting both him and his parents, then tossing him out of the synagogue (thereby cutting him off from any support). Jesus lost his temper. I see this parable not said quietly, sitting down and speaking to the assembled crowds, but in a tirade, lashing out at the Pharisees who dared to question his judgement of them: “If you were blind, then you would have no guilt! But, now that you say ‘We see,’ your guilt remains!

Jesus then goes on to tell them what their jobs, as shepherds of the flock of Israel, was: to protect Israel from those trying to enter her walls and attack the flock (spiritually). To lead the people and to care for them, even at the loss of their own lives. He then tells them that he is the gate through which all must pass to safety and salvation, that he will keep out those wishing to do harm, that it is through him that the people will find what they need. That is why they are following him and not the Pharisees, for they hear his words and know his voice and know that his teaching is true. The Father has sent Jesus to lay down his life for them and he does this willingly for he loves his people.

This is a message that is as relevant to our days as it was then, and it is a message not to the people but to those who would shepherd the flocks. Are the pastors of today fulfilling the mission? Are the tithes they receive being used to care for the needs of the flock, or are they being used to support a grandiose lifestyle? Are they used to care for the sick, or to build elegant chapels? Are they willing to stick their necks out to preach salvation, or do they hold their tongues to save them? Are they protecting the flock, or do they use their positions to abuse those who trust in them? I know this is a harsh message, but I would be guilty as well if I held quiet at this point. In this age the government has taken over the responsibility of caring for the poor and the infirmed in most societies, but that does not relieve the church of her responsibility of making sure their other needs are handled, both physical and spiritual. The current Roman Pope has seen this mistake and is taking measures, unpopular ones in some quarters of the RCC, to rectify it…but what of other churches? Are the people homeless, hungry, in tattered clothing, while the clergy drive in expensive cars, live in lavish estates, and preach for tithing in glorious chapels? Are they Good Shepherds or bad? And what of us? If we follow them sheepishly, sitting quietly while this goes on, then we are as guilty as they for we are all responsible for our brethren. As Charles Dickens stated in A Christmas Carol we must not let them suffer the poor houses, though they are paid for with tax money; same here, we must go beyond the welfare the state provides, we must all be Good Shepherds to the flocks.

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