Updated: Feb 4
Jesus said, “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.”
This is the Gospel selection from the Episcopal Lectionary for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year B 2018. It will next be read aloud in church by a priest on Sunday, April 22, 2018. It is important as it tells of Jesus being the good shepherd, with all pretenders being hired hands. In this message, Jesus spoke of the power to lay down a life in order to take it up again, which becomes a prophecy of the Good Shepherd’s resurrection in Apostles.
The tenth chapter of John’s Gospel begins with Jesus telling the preceding parts of this well-known metaphor of the Good Shepherd. Prior to this reading, Jesus had explained how sheep recognize the voice of their shepherd, with the sheep’s shepherds calling the sheep from the gate of the sheepfold. False shepherds hop the fence or wall of the sheepfold, with the intent of stealing them. The sheepfold is implied to be a place of safe keeping, such that Jesus said he was the gate through which the sheep (flocks of all true shepherds) enter. As an entrance point into a place of safekeeping, the whole sheepfold represents salvation; and as the gate, salvation can only come through Jesus.
In this part of the reading, John quoted Jesus as saying, “I am the good shepherd,” where Jesus then went on to explain that a good shepherd will be willing to die to protect his flock. Jesus pointed out the difference between a true shepherd – one who leads his or her flock of sheep to the sheep fold as evening draws near – and a good shepherd. That difference can be seen as WHY one is a shepherd in the first place.
There are sheep; but sheep will become wild (led by dominant male rams) if unattended by humans. As valuable possessions, for milk products (goats = sheep), wool, and meat, they can be domesticated (led by shepherds). Domestication, through ownership, requires constant care: letting them out to graze, rounding them up for nightfall, milking them, sacrificing them for food, and shearing their wool. That work makes one earn payment for their care. This means domesticated sheep need to be watched by shepherds, to protect one’s investment flock from wild predators, such as wolves.
This means shepherds can be hired to fill that position as “hired hands,” if the owner profits enough from his flock. Such a paid employee is not one who typically cares more about the well being of the flock, than oneself’s well-being. Shepherd work is a lowly position, such that a rancher usually assigns his younger children to watch his flock. When one’s children are grown, however, it will force a rancher to hire other young children to do that work.
When faced with the danger of a predator, where the predator could easily turn on a child shepherd that is paid to watch a flock owned by someone else, such a threat will always force one into a point of decision: Do I risk harm protecting someone else’s sheep? Or, do I sacrifice someone else’s sheep for my own safety? A “hired hand” will always choose to save oneself, at the expense of the safety of the sheep.
When Jesus then said, “I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father,” this touches on the element of family that produces a good shepherd. Just as shepherds were typically the young sons that tended the flocks owned by their fathers, they knew the responsibilities of their job included laying down their lives in protection of their extended family. Just as their father would lay down his life protecting his children, the children would honor their fathers by doing the same for the livestock own by their fathers. This means a “hired hand” also knew the responsibilities of a son (or daughter) to their father; but when wolves were threatening someone else’s flock, the offering up of one’s life for someone else’s family became the deeper issue that caused a paid outside employee to turn away.
By seeing that issue of family, one can better grasp how Jesus then said, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.” Jesus was saying that all sheep not having a shepherd that is totally committed to protecting the flocks of another family, Jesus will be the one who will take on that responsibility of laying down his life to protect them. Of course, “other sheep that do not belong to this fold” (the one of which Jesus then tended) was relative to father Moses (ie.: the Jews sheepfold). The “other sheep” are then Gentile sheep.
When Jesus said, “I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice,” he was prophesying the spread of Christianity, where the voice of Jesus would flow from the mouths of Good Shepherds that were Apostles in the name of Jesus Christ. Those sheep would hear the voice of the family of God the Father, sounded by His Son the Good Shepherd.
When Jesus then said, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again,” that can be seen as a prophecy of Jesus saying he would be killed by the predators that were attacking the flocks of Judaism. Jesus was the Good Shepherd tending to that scattered group of sheep, where the Roman wolves had been left to devour the ones left unprotected by the “hired hands” that were the Sanhedrin.
Those elitist “rulers, elders, scribes, and all who were of high-priestly descent” in Jerusalem (from the accompanying Acts 4:5-6 reading) were not related to the Father. They were only in their positions for the money, fame and glory, not the sacrifice of lives protecting lowly sheep. The Sanhedrin, Pharisees, and Sadducees did “not care for the sheep” of Israel. It would be their negligence that would cause Jesus of Nazareth to be thrown to the wolves, losing his life, “in order to take it up again” in apostles who would go out seeking all the lost flocks of the Father (which included Jewish flocks, Samaritan flocks, scattered Israelite flocks, and Gentile flocks).
When Jesus said, “The Father loves me, because I lay down my life,” he was repeating what he had said to the Sanhedrin representative Nicodemus, as Jesus had begun his ministry. John wrote how Jesus said, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” That sacrificed Son (spoken to Nicodemus) is now called the Good Shepherd (spoken to Jews of the Temple). The rescue of Jesus, so those who believed in him would not die, would be to to collect the lost sheep for eternal life. They would be raised up again as the lambs of God, each reborn as the Good Shepherd.
Look at this picture as one’s sacrificed ego becoming as meek as the lamb, while one’s human form covers the Christ risen within.
When John then wrote how Jesus said, “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord,” this was his choice, which was taken completely from a love for his Father as a willing sacrifice for a higher good. It is the lesson learned from the Father’s love of the Son. It is how the Good Shepherd sees the flock as his willing responsibility, because of the love shared between the Father and the Son. This is how all Apostles must first be adopted by the Father, through marriage that makes one’s heart become the seat of the LORD.
This means the Sanhedrin “hired hands” and the Roman “wolves” were known to exist, but they would not be given the ability to control “good” through fear. The love of God surrounds one like a sheepfold, with Jesus the gate. Jesus knew neither the Sanhedrin nor the Romans held any lasting power. They knew better than try to jump the fence or wall and be caught stealing (a Commandment). Therefore, Jesus would knowingly walk into the trap set by those who did not care for anyone and lay down his life. He would make that sacrifice as a “witness” to the power of God. The Greek word for “witness” is “martus,” the root for “martyr,” as “martys.”
This is why Jesus then said, “I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.” This is the power of Resurrection, which was the “spiritual matter” Jesus tried to tell Nicodemus about, only Nicodemus’ big brain blocked him from grasping the concept of rebirth (a common flaw of thinking to this day). Jesus proved he had been given the power to lay down his own life and take it up again with his Resurrection from death. However, “the command from [the] Father” extended well beyond the limits of one man’s life on earth, as Jesus would lay down his life so it could be reborn in all those who believed, who laid down their egos to be raised up as the Son, again and again and again.
This is clearly the Easter lesson that is to be grasped by Christians on the Fourth Sunday of Easter. Everything John recalled said by Jesus has to be seen in personal terms, where this reading is intended to make those listening to hear themselves being called, “Wolf!” Christians are to ask themselves, “Why do I attack, scatter, and devour Christians who are lost and cannot defend their religion?” “Why do I attack anyone and use Jesus Christ as my excuse?”
Are you of one denomination or branch of Christianity that possesses the “Us vs. Them” mentality, where no other flocks are worthy of God’s protection? Do you see your denomination superior to others? Do you seek to kill first and ask questions later, because you see eternal salvation as a war against flawed dogmatic philosophies (blind to the flaws you believe), where only the righteous will survive?
Then you need to ask yourselves, “Why do I run away, when I see wolves attacking the innocent?”
Why are you not a “hired hand” of Christianity, if you cannot truthfully look towards heaven and swear to God, “I am you Son, here to do Your work!”?
The Easter lesson of the Good Shepherd is more than the simpleton belief that Jesus died so we could all run and play in fields of green pastures and lie down beside crystal clear, cool, still waters, having all our needs met. We must stop seeing ourselves as little lambs of innocence, when the reality is we always get in trouble (sin, sin, sin), so Jesus is always running to our rescue.
As long as we walk the face of the earth, we are always walking through the valley of the shadow of death, because the earth is where evil calls home. Satan lords over the earthly domain; and he lures human beings with things that call them away from the flock, to where innocent sheep can be ripped to shreds and torn apart, limb from limb. Because the laws of nature explain that as “survival of the fittest,” we think nothing of another weak sheep lost. Still, we fear that end is always a heartbeat away from being our demise.
This means the lesson of the Good Shepherd is we each must be free of fearing evil. We must know, “I fear no evil; for Jesus is with me.” We must be able to claim: “Jesus restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” Christians become the “namesakes” of Jesus Christ when they have been Resurrected as him.
Only then, as Jesus reborn, can we see ourselves as protectors of the flocks. Only as Apostles, seeking to protect lost sheep, can Christians see a reflection of the good this story tells in themselves.