‘Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.’ Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
So again Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go 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. 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. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.’
Again the Jews were divided because of these words. Many of them were saying, ‘He has a demon and is out of his mind. Why listen to him?’ Others were saying, ‘These are not the words of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?’
In the centuries since the time when the Gospels were written we may have developed a rather cosy, comfortable and even saccharine image of the Good Shepherd. The archetypal picture on the Sunday school walls of the benevolent, protecting shepherd cradling the woolly sheep holds sway in many minds. There is certainly an element of this loving, caring figure in the Gospel message. However, as today’s reading shows, Jesus’ teaching, using the concept of the shepherd, is far more potent and visceral in the punch that it carries.
In the anodyne characterisation of the shepherd the modern reader seems to have lost the connection between the shepherd and that of the office of ruler which Ezekiel and others so powerfully make in Old Testament prophecy (e.g. Ezekiel 37.24). Jesus is the one true shepherd, the one true leader of his people, and how are we to know this … because, as foretold, he lays down his life for his sheep.
So this sets a very different tone from the comfortable picture we have grown up with. Jesus as the Good Shepherd is a poignant and tragic figure. He also represents a challenge for those who he calls to enter by the gate that his self-giving love has fashioned for us. The stakes could not be higher; we are dealing with big issues of divine leadership, sacrifice and salvation. And these verses show we are not the only ones to struggle with understanding the nature of his teaching, and to recognise the shepherd’s voice: “Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.”
So we must guard against the familiar cosy image blinding us to the personal challenge that these verses are making for us. The marvellous thing is that he calls each one of us by name. We only need to show that we know his voice and enter by the gate.
Jesus, You wonderfully call each one of us by name. We ask that through your Spirit we hear and recognise your voice; so that you truly become the shepherd, the leader, the one who guides us through our lives and through the gate into the fold of your embrace. Amen.
Professor Graham Handscomb Member of Christ Church URC Chelmsford