The image of the shepherd as a symbol for God’s leadership and pastoral care of his people occurs at various places across the Hebrew scriptures, most famously in the Shepherd Psalm, number 23. It has also taken a significant hold on the Christian imagination. Some of the most popular pictures of Jesus are those that depict him as a shepherd, leading a flock of sheep, or bringing the lost sheep home on his shoulders.
This picture of Jesus has influenced the church’s images of its leaders, so that in many traditions the ordained minister is called the “pastor,” and ministerial care of the community is called “pastoral care.” Behind both of these understandings of ministerial vocation is the sense that the minister is called to lead in the image of Jesus’ leadership, to be the shepherd as Jesus is shepherd.
Jesus’ shepherd-discourse takes place during the feast of Hanukkah, or the feast of the Dedication, which commemorated the victory of Judas Maccabeus some two hundred years earlier.
Every time the Jewish people celebrated Hanukkah, they certainly thought about God and liberation. They also thanked God for having the Temple back again. But they also thought about kings, and how they became kings.
Here we see Jesus, walking in the Temple during this festival, talking about the good shepherd, the real shepherd, the king who would come and show all the others up as a bunch of thieves and brigands. Never let it be thought that Jesus’ message was anything other than controversial—and dangerous. Never forget that this famous ‘good shepherd’ chapter of John 10, ends with people trying to stone Jesus to death.
Jesus’ ‘sheep’ are therefore those who hear and receive his message of a different kingdom. His life has climaxed in the revelation of God being at work in and through him. While many have accepted his redefinition of kingship many others do not, because they are determined to follow a vision of the ‘age to come’ which will be attained through the establishment of a worldly kingdom.
Jesus promises that he will give us eternal life – but we should not be too quick to translate this phrase ‘eternal life’ into something that is less Jewish, and more Platonic, suggesting simply an endless state of disembodied post-mortem bliss. In the first-century Jewish world, the phrase meant primarily ‘the life of the age to come’, that new age where heaven and earth have crashed together, in which wrongs would be righted, sins forgiven and God would be all in all. That is precisely what Jesus was claiming to offer. And he was claiming that, despite the pressure among his contemporaries to seek a Maccabean-style solution to their present plight, that God had ensured that some at least would follow him and find thereby the narrow way that would lead to life. In this, as in all things, Jesus and the Father were always one.
Grace and peace.
Fourth Sunday of Easter (Good Shepherd Sunday); John 10:27-30