John 10:11-18; Psalm 23
John 10 presents one of the New Testament’s most beloved images of Jesus and his relationship with his followers: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. … I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.”
The Old Testament background music is palpable, especially Ezekiel 34, where shepherd imagery conveys God’s genuine care for the well-being of God’s sheep, in marked contrast to that of false shepherds. Psalm 23, the most beloved of the psalms and another text for the fourth Sunday of Easter, also comes to mind. Its depiction of the Lord as our shepherd, who supplies our needs by leading us beside still waters and into green pastures, provides profound words of assurance that we are well-cared-for sheep! In John 10, Jesus draws such imagery to himself, describing himself as the kind of shepherd the Old Testament says only God can be — as one who conveys God’s pastoral care to the sheep. Two distinctive aspects of Jesus’ shepherding practice receive particular emphasis. One is his intimate knowledge of his sheep, whom he knows by name and who recognize his voice. He speaks not of head knowledge, but of intimate, relational knowledge between shepherd and sheep. The other distinctive emphasis is his willingness, as the good shepherd, even to lay down his life for his sheep. These are not words of self-sacrifice, but of self-giving and radical commitment: “No one takes [my life] 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.” The good shepherd protects the sheep from danger, whatever the cost, calling to mind Psalm 23’s affirmation of the shepherd’s accompaniment in the midst of dark valleys and the presence of enemies: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff — they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” Together, Psalm 23 and John 10 convey God in Christ’s deep solidarity with the flock, whatever the circumstances
This powerful imagery of deep solidarity and intimate relationship in Jesus’ description of his own shepherding practice is explicitly contrasted in John 10 with the unreliable oversight of “the hired hand” who does not truly care for the sheep and so runs away at the first sign of trouble: “The hired hand … 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.” The marked contrast drawn between the two invites reflection on the presence of false shepherds in our own time and place — imposters who would claim the shepherd’s mantle, promising security of various kinds that they cannot deliver. In our own context, John 10 also invites reflection on the antithesis between deeply relationalnotions of shepherding and transactional notions exemplified by hired hands.
In our Reformed heritage, John’s Christological image of the good shepherd and his sheep is captured in the deeply relational notion of covenant — a concept of profound solidarity. Covenant is the divine pattern for relationships – one that willingly risks danger in solidarity with others – reflected in the Noahic covenant between God and the earth and the Abrahamic covenant between God and Abraham’s descendants. Both entail a deeply relational pattern of life in which God willingly enters into the darkest valleys in order to liberate and redeem. This pattern of life stands in marked contrast to the dominant symbol for most modern relationships: the “contract.”
A contract is based in negotiation and prescribes conditional relations with the other — “you do this, and I’ll do that.” In a contract, the meeting of stipulations is the sole basis for continuing the relationship. The contract is deeply transactional, and without staying power. As Scott Greer, a professor of sociology and urban studies, has noted, transactional patterns of life find communal expression in what he calls a “community of limited liability.” In “The Emerging City: Myth and Reality,” Greer describes relationships in urban areas like this: “The individual’s investment is relatively small in the interactional network that constitutes the locality group, and if his losses are too great he can cut them by getting out — the community cannot hold him. … Even the most deeply involved can withdraw from the local community and satisfy all needs elsewhere.” This sobering concept of “communities of limited liability” is one that churches need to ponder — perhaps especially those located in neighborhoods in which many of their members do not reside, where relationships with the community surrounding the congregation may be tenuous at best.
Covenantal patterns of life, like transactional ones, also find communal expression. Indeed “flock and shepherd” is an ecclesial image in John, and the covenantal pattern of life the good shepherd embodies is to be reflected in the church’s life and mission as it gives expression to its love for Jesus by “tending” and “feeding” his sheep (John 21:15-19). The demands of biblical covenants are right relations with God and others, especially vulnerable others: the oppressed, the brokenhearted, the captive and the prisoner. Right relation to others thus entails solidarity, accompanying them through dark valleys. Jesus’ shepherding ministry is to be a model for our own, for the risen Lord asks of us, “Do you love me?” Then “tend my sheep.”
On the other side of Easter, the risen Lord also invites us to attend to wounds. In John, when the risen Jesus appears to his disciples behind locked doors, the wounds of crucifixion are still on him and he directs their attention to them (John 20:19-29). In “Resurrecting Wounds,” theologian Shelly Rambo finds in this story an additional paradigm for the church’s life and ministry, contending that the real power of the resurrection is attending to wounds, with a readiness “to hold pain and to stay with difficult truths” about the wounds that remain in our own lives and in our world. Attending to such wounds, like tending and feeding Jesus’ sheep, is a deeply relational, covenantal practice, that creates spaces in which liberation and new life can emerge. As your wounds connect to my wounds – and your suffering to my suffering – a communal, covenantal life can emerge in which we walk with one another through dark valleys and gather together at a table prepared for us even in the midst of all that threatens us. The Good Shepherd is leading the way.
- What is your experience of Psalm 23 and the shepherd who supplies our needs by leading us beside still waters and into green pastures?
- How has the shepherd’s accompaniment in the midst of dark valleys found expression in your life?
- In our context, where do you see the antithesis between deeply relational notions of shepherding and transactional notions exemplified by hired hands?
- How is your church related to community surrounding the congregation? And does Scott Greer’s notion of “community of limited liability” resonate with the church’s relationship to its community?
- The biblical notion of covenant demands right relations with God and others, especially vulnerable others: the oppressed, the brokenhearted, the captive and the prisoner. How has the church embraced this notion of covenant?
- As we attend to one another’s wounds, we walk with one another through dark valleys and gather together at a table prepared for us even in the midst of all that threatens us. How have you experienced this in your community?
Over the last five months, “Looking into the Lectionary” has been written by Roger Gench, theologian in residence at Second Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Virginia. Roger is the author of “The Cross Examen,” a book that finds nodes of connection between rich spiritual reflection and profound engagement in public life. Thank you, Roger, for weaving these intersections into our study of Scripture each week!
Now, as Roger turns to the classroom and other work, the Outlook’s “Looking into the Lectionary” column will carry on with guest contributors. We will continue to present thoughtful commentary on the lectionary week by week.
— Jay Blossom, Presbyterian Outlook interim editor