Reading John 10:1-10 (NRSV)
I’d like to thank Bev, Wendy, Kelli, Paul and Gary for sharing their personal reflections on Psalm 23 earlier. It’s such a well-known and well-loved Psalm, and your reflections have indicated why that is – because it still speaks to us today, 3,000 years after it was written.
As most of you know, I was at Wellington in the Central West of NSW prior to returning here. Kristine and I stayed on a farm with a farming couple who had lots of sheep, not only where we were but on a couple of other farms in the district. There were also a number of farmers in the Church, some of whom had several hundred sheep despite sell-offs due to the drought. Events and circumstances during that time often reminded me of Psalm 23, and I ended up with a new appreciation and fondness for it.
This Psalm would also have been well-loved and well-known by the Jews of Jesus’ day. They would have identified with the rural setting much more readily than us. And it was no doubt extra special to them because it was written by David, the greatest King the nation ever had, but once a humble shepherd himself.
There are a couple of other passages in the Jewish Scriptures with shepherd imagery that would also have been well-known to those in Jesus’ day. Jeremiah 23 is one (easy to remember – just think of Ps 23) and Ezekiel 34 is another. Both these passages have some very important things in common.
- Firstly, the leaders of the nation are described as shepherds, but as bad shepherds who have failed to protect and care for the sheep, their people.
Jeremiah 23:1,2 (NRSV): Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord. Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord.
- Secondly, by way of contrast, God declares that He will be a good shepherd for the people.
Ezekiel 34:15,16a (NRSV): I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I 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.
- The third thing they have in common is that they both point forward to one of David’s line who will also be a good and godly shepherd.
Ezekiel 34:23,24 (NRSV): I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David,
(note that David had been dead and buried for some 400 years when this was written)
and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken.
This is the background to what Jesus says in the Gospel reading.
Like the prophets, he presents a dramatic contrast.
On the one hand, there are thieves and bandits and strangers who only care about themselves and not the sheep and who present an existential threat to them.
On the other hand, there is the true, legitimate shepherd who cares for the sheep, knows them by name, feeds them, protects them.
The imagery of the thieves, bandits and strangers applied to the Pharisees who, as leaders of the nation, were supposed to be faithfully shepherding the people, but weren’t.
Immediately prior to this, Jesus had been criticising the Pharisees for being blind.
The image of the good shepherd Jesus claims for himself. It’s implicit throughout our passage, and Jesus explicitly states it in v10: “I am the good shepherd.” This is one of several “I am” statements from Jesus that are featured in John’s Gospel. It’s a claim to deity, relating back to God’s revelation of Himself to Moses as eternal God through the name “I am”.
“I am… the good shepherd” This was also a claim to be the shepherd the prophets foretold –
The shepherd of the line of David, God’s anointed one who would seek out the sheep, rescue them and care for them.
Notice that Jesus didn’t just say “I am the good shepherd.”
He said: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (v11).
We’ll commemorate that as we come to Communion shortly.
He also said: “I came that they might have life and have it abundantly.” (v10).
We’ll reflect on that too as we share in Communion.
The crowd at the time found all that confusing and mystifying. But as post-Easter people, we know that Jesus not only gave up his life but also took it up again at the resurrection. In doing so he became the Good Shepherd forever – the eternal “I am” Good Shepherd.
It’s through his death and resurrection that we have life and it’s life in abundance because he is our Good Shepherd.
Prayer for help (Anonymous. Passed on by a member and slightly adapted.)
Lord, You put twenty-four hours in a day;
You gave me a body which gets tired and can only do so much.
Show me what you want me to do and how you want me to pray.
Help me to
Open my eyes and look;
Taste what I am eating;
Listen to what I am hearing;
Face what I am suffering;
Celebrate the ways I am loved;
And offer what I am doing,
So that the current cup of sadness and anxiety may be transformed by your grace and power into a cup overflowing with joy and blessing.
Benediction — Hebrews 13:20-21 (NRSV)
Now may the God of peace, who brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, make you complete in everything good so that you may do his will, working among us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.