I’m not a big fan of Good Shepherd Sunday. There I said it.
When we say Good Shepherd Sunday, what often happens is that many people get this image in their head of a calming, soothing Jesus, holding a perfectly clean shining white lamb over his shoulders, with a smile on his face, who walks so carefully as to not unwittingly step on a bug in his path. A Jesus who wouldn’t possibly say or do anything that would make anyone upset. Certainly not a Jesus who would challenge our beliefs about money, our political beliefs, our stuff, and our responsibility towards others and the rest of creation. A Jesus that takes care of all of our needs and desires – all we have to do is ask and he’ll give us whatever we want. It’s precious moments Jesus. Too many turn Jesus the Good Shepherd into Jesus the Good Customer Service Rep.
There’s a term for this in theological studies – Eisegesis. Eisegesis is a subjective method of interpreting Scripture that introduces our own opinions into the original writings, focusing more on your own ideas and viewpoints, rather than what is there in the text and the context. We see this play out in a variety of ways in our culture. Just read anything Jesus says and all of a sudden people are making definitive declarations about whether Jesus would be a Democrat or Republican based on the text – as if the Scriptures were written specifically for us, here in America in the 21stcentury. That’s quite an assumption. The whole notion that Jesus would be a member of any political party in a nation that dominates or has influence on the world in so many ways – whether culturally, militarily, financially, politically, business, entertainment, and more – well, that’s quite a jump. It’s not based on any understanding of biblical or cultural context.
Good Shepherd Sunday is actually a great example of this – if we pay attention to the readings and the context of the readings. If we actually listen to what is being said. So, what’s actually going on?
What we hear today is the middle of the story. It’s like deciding to watch a two-hour movie and turning it on at the one-hour mark and turning it back off after about ten minutes. You don’t see the beginning, and the build up. And you don’t see where it leads to and how it turns out. You don’t get the whole story in those ten minutes. Even if you’ve seen the movie before, it’s likely you don’t remember what happened exactly right before or right after the segment you watched. You may not remember what led up to the point in which you tuned in.
So let’s rewind a bit. Back to John 9. Jesus gives sight to a man born blind. Remember that? That’s an amazing miracle. So amazing that we even hear the man healed say that “Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind.” That’s amazing. Let that miracle sink in. But don’t get blinded by that. There’s more to this story than just the miracle.
Throughout the conversation between Jesus and the man, as well as with the man and the Pharisees, we hear some consistent phrases – We hear Jesus do something, give a command and the blind man does it. We hear that in Vs. 6 and 11. We also hear phrases about not listening to Jesus voice. Vs. 27 when the man is interrogated by the Pharisees and won’t listen to his explanation he says – “I have told you already, and you do not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples? Then they reviled him, saying, You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses.” Who is a disciple of Jesus – the man who listened to him. He is a sheep that hears the voice of Jesus and listens. The others do not recognize Jesus’ voice. The man is eventually ignored and driven out. The Pharisees don’t want to listen. They’ve made up their minds about Jesus – about who he is. They are doing their own bit of Eisegesis, you could say.
Then we are told that Jesus heard that they had driven the man out, and then he went and found him. Sounds like another Good Shepherd story doesn’t it? The lost sheep.
He says to the man, “Do you believe in the Son of Man? He answered, who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him. And Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he. He said, Lord, I believe.” Catch that? The one speaking with you is he. And he believed. The man heard Jesus’ voice and followed. Jesus is the Shepherd and the man is one of the sheep.
And then we get to John 10 – today’s Gospel. We hear this – The sheep hear his voice. We hear Jesus go on further – 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.”
The Good Shepherd isn’t a customer service rep who follows the lead of the customer, giving the customer everything they want, making the customer happy, and repeating the line – the customer is always right. No, not even close. Rather, Jesus the Good Shepherd leads, not responds. Jesus the Good Shepherd speaks, and those that belong to him follow. They ignore and reject the voice of those who are not the Good Shepherd – who proclaim a message that is in opposition to what the Shepherd is saying.
The Good Shepherd isn’t passive and a push over who won’t ruffle any feathers. And we hear this a little further into John 10 when Jesus is questioned about whether he is the Messiah. He answers them saying “I have told you, and you do not believe. You do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” Sheep listen to the Shepherd. There’s no excuses made. No rationalization in order to follow some other false shepherd because that false shepherd tells us what we want to hear, or taps into our fears, or gives us some other identity – like a different herd to belong to.
You see, historically, the Greek and the Roman political traditions present kings and emperors as Good Shepherds who provide security for their subjects as well as the abundance – or spoils of conquest if we are honest – from the empire. Jesus confronts this image – Takes and uses it to present something different. It wasn’t Caesar or any other emperor or king that was a Good Shepherd really. Caesars and emperors and kings care more about their own power and wellbeing than their subjects. Jesus rips that idea apart when he says that all who came before him are thieves and bandits, but the sheep did not listen to them. Caesar and emperors and kings are not the ones who provide safety, security, or abundance. And they certainly don’t provide salvation. They are the thieves and bandits that take. They set up systems that benefit themselves at the expense of the many. And you know, kings and emperors and Caesars can be anything or anyone that we listen to above everyone and everything else, that we don’t question, that we make excuses for. They present themselves as Good Shepherds who really care about you, but in reality would throw you under the bus when you are no longer useful. Only Jesus is the actual Good Shepherd.
Jesus calls himself the gate. We are told by him directly, that “whoever enters by him will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” That’s what a Good Shepherd is really about. Not telling us what we want or desire, but giving us what we truly need. Leading us to salvation and abundant life. Speaking to us words of truth and life – a focus on what is life giving.
Jesus isn’t the good customer service rep. He’s the Good Shepherd. He’s the voice we hear and follow. He’s the one who leads us in how to live. He’s the one who lives into Shalom – wholeness and wellbeing for all of society. He’s the one who actually heals people from their sickness and poverty – we hear story after story about healings and miracles. It’s the powers that be in these stories that don’t like these healings and miracles. He brings good news to the poor, not by patting them on the back and saying well-meaning things, but rather by changing their circumstances and the systems that are in place to maintain poverty for so many.
You see, a Good Shepherd doesn’t accommodate and keep silent about these things. A Good Shepherd exposes them for what they are and then confronts them and changes them. A Good Shepherd doesn’t keep a false peace, turning a blind eye because something is uncomfortable or inconvenient. A Good Shepherd deals with the reality that is right there in the shepherd’s face. A Good Shepherd asks difficult and uncomfortable questions like – Where do we participate in systems that oppress others? How are we following the Good Shepherd’s voice who calls us out to see reality instead of turning a blind eye to it? How is Jesus calling us to follow the path to abundant life for all of God’s creation?
Jesus isn’t the Good Customer Service Rep. He’s the Good Shepherd. We are the sheep. Do you hear his voice? What’s he saying?