Shepherds, shepherding and sheep are among the most prevalent sources for imagery in the Bible. Of course this was because the Israelites were pastoralists, herders and the keepers of sheep.
All the way back to Cain and Abel we see an inherent preference for the keeper of flocks. Now herders and farmers often don’t get along because of their competing interests. Herds of grazing animals have to keep their flocks moving to new pastures as each area is denuded by the animals. As a farmer, the last thing you want is to have your immobile crops eaten or trampled by somebody’s sheep. We’re told that Cain slew his brother Abel in jealousy for Abel’s lamb sacrifice being accepted by God and his cereal offering not finding favor (an unfair and arbitrary judgement by God in my [and Cain’s] estimation), but I bet Abel was killed in sight of Cain’s recently trampled crops.
Israelites were sheep people, this much is plain. And God is pro-herder. So the images of sheep and shepherd abound.
This coming Sunday, each year, is unofficially “Good Shepherd Sunday.” Every year on this Sunday we get the 23rd Psalm and a gospel lesson on the good shepherding of Jesus. There is usually a cute picture of a lamb nuzzling an attentive gentle shepherd on the bulleting cover. I checked our bulletins out for this week. There’s no nuzzling but there are plenty of cute sheep watched over by an attentive shepherd.
I would guess most of us are very comfortable with the idea of Jesus being a good shepherd. I am. But I am not always sure what “Good Shepherding” means for us. In my mind good shepherding is protection, keeping the sheep from harm. So in the gospel lesson Jesus compares a good shepherd and a “hired hand.” The big difference is that the hired hand flees when a wolf comes threating the flock.
For whatever reason the image that forms in my mind of the good shepherd and the wolf is that the shepherd fights the wolf off, perhaps killing the wolf. Maybe this is how good shepherding typically works in wolf/sheep interface, I don’t know. What I do know is that Jesus doesn’t suggest that the good shepherd fights the wolf but says specifically that he lays down his life for the sheep. In fact, it is this precise method of protecting the sheep, laying down his own life, that establishes the particular kind of love God has for this good shepherd. “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life…” (John 10:17)
So for John, Jesus is the good shepherd because of his steadfast commitment to the sheep and willingness to remain resolute to his task even at the risk of his own life. This commitment on behalf of the well-being of his charge is the main point of the image.
The Good Shepherd chapter of John’s gospel is an interlude of teaching between the healing of the man born blind and the raising of Lazarus. John uses it as a furtherance of Jesus teaching after healing the man born blind. Perhaps Jesus is suggesting that his being the Good Shepherd is in contrast to the hired hands who end up driving out that former blind man from their community.
The man born blind story from John 9 begins with Jesus’s own disciples asking Jesus who sinned the blind man or his parents that the man was born blind. The religious leaders who confront Jesus will also make the assumption that the man was born blind as some kind of punishment from God. Jesus rejects that explanation in the midst of the lengthy conversation around the restoration of the man’s sight.
Read in this context, the Good Shepherd segment might suggest that those who assumed the man’s blindness was the result of some guilt and therefore was punishment were not good shepherds to the man. It is easy to shrug off responsibility to help such a person if you assumed they were being punished for sin. No personal sacrifice would be required on behalf of the blind man if God were punishing him or his parents for some sin. In fact, helping such a person would actually be mitigating God’s punishment and working counter to God. Could you imagine scenarios where this happens?
Because Jesus accepted the man and didn’t stigmatize or judge him based on his disability he is a good and loving shepherd. When Jesus said that he had other sheep to make a part of his flock he may have been referring not in general to peoples of other places or religions (as we often assume) but specifically to people like this man who had not been accepted and protected as part of a flock (community) especially by religious and civic leaders whose responsibility it was to do just that. If there is judgment here (as there certainly was by the people around the blind man) Jesus may be suggesting that the guilty are those who acted as hired hands and shirked their responsibility to be a good shepherd to the man born blind.
I remember in seminary my professors emphasizing that there is only one truly good shepherd, Jesus. True enough! But Jesus is presenting his shepherding style as a contrast to those around him. Implied is a judgment against “hired hand” carelessness and the message, don’t be like the hired hand. Certainly, this is how the people around the blind man interpreted Jesus, some of whom think Jesus is possessed or crazy or possibly both. (John 10:20)