When Jesus used this pastoral figure of speech with the disciples, that of a Shepherd caring for the sheep, he did so knowing full well its political implications. “Shepherd” was used to describe the king, or head of state, for hundreds of years, not only for the Jewish people, but for many nations in the surrounding Greco-Roman world. Moses, Israel’s greatest prophet, was a shepherd. David, Israel’s greatest king, was a shepherd too. Jesus, who was of the “house and family of David,” was born in Bethlehem, in the region of the shepherd’s fields, where David once kept flock.
At first glance, this picture of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is serene and pastoral, simple and self-evident. God, the gate-keeper, opens the gate for Jesus the Shepherd, who calls the sheep by their very own name; the sheep know the shepherd’s voice, and they follow the shepherd into green pastures and abundant life. But, what are we to make of the divisive comments Jesus saves for whoever the “thieves and bandits” are? Those who “climb in the sheepfold by another way,” and “who steal, and kill, and destroy?” This pointed figure of speech, Jesus aimed at the opposition in the previous story to today’s gospel reading, those who are still listening in, those false shepherds in the story of Jesus’ healing of the man born blind from birth, and how the Pharisees, after he was able to see, ran him out of the synagogue.
To make matters worse, the image of Shepherd had suffered significantly in the years leading up to Jesus’ coming into the world, his entry into the sheepfold. Shepherds had devolved into social misfits, shady characters, the poor and often undesirable, those the Pharisees would have considered to be outcasts. Jesus’ reference to himself as the Good Shepherd, and as the gate to the sheepfold, only serves to seal his fate. By the end of this chapter, the Pharisees try to stone him. Though unsuccessful, yet they are undeterred. They do not confront Jesus publically any more, but go out secretly and plot to take his life.
But Jesus stuck with the shepherd image, and even lifted it up after his death and resurrection, in that redeeming story around a shore fire by the Sea of Galilee, after that enormous catch of fish that Jesus had directed the disciples to. After Jesus had cooked breakfast for them, he bids Peter to be the new shepherd of church, telling Peter, that “if you love me, feed my lambs, and tend my sheep.” Jesus identified with the outcast shepherds, and reinstates them as leaders, but in a new way.
Even as Jesus was preparing to “retire” from this world, he carefully made plans for the next Shepherd, Peter, to take office, so that the disciples, and all the followers and believers afterward, all the sheep, would be able to shepherd one another. The church would be the people, not the temple building. Any believer could become a shepherd, and lead others to the pasture, so they could be trained and taught about the Good Shepherd, and instructed on the dangers of those false shepherds who “climb in by another way,” only to protect their privilege, and not the flock. Jesus knew the temple would be destroyed soon, and the people would be the new church. The ones who knew the voice of the shepherd would follow. It would be a new day. Change was coming, and indeed already had arrived. Jesus promised life, abundant life. And we hear how it had taken hold in Jerusalem already in our Acts reading today: “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and koinonia-fellowship, to the breaking of bread [in their homes] and the prayers.” “…All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”
The world does not grasp on to this koinonia-fellowship naturally, but it needs to be taught over and over again. Disciples are made, not born. An example was brought to my attention just this week, how the Shepherd Paul Ryan, a congressman, who I hate to admit is from Wisconsin, claims as one of his inspirations, that great author of selfishness, Ayn Rand. Ryan loves Rand’s book, Atlas Shrugged, which advocates the opposite of koinonia-fellowship and sharing, a selfishness that absolves all responsibility to care for the neighbor. It explained a lot to me about Mr. Ryans bizarre, at least to my ears, budget proposal, cutting taxes for the richest of the rich, while undoing the promises of Medicare and Medicaid to protect and care for the most vulnerable among us.
I don’t mean to turn this into partisan politics, only to point out that Jesus jumped headlong into the debate of his day over the leaders of their people, the shepherds, and was quite plain about what God expected them to be: someone who cared for the sheep, and opposed those who used their privilege to steal, kill and destroy. The examples are endless throughout scripture, from Moses, to Isaiah, to Jesus. God brings life, abundant life to the sheep who freely go in and out from the protected sheepfold to the gift of green pasture. The shepherds that advocate selfishness, and getting all you can for yourself, are thieves and bandits. They look at the world and see scarcity. Just the thought of sharing increases their anxiety, and they plot how to justify what they are about to steal, and who they are about to kill and destroy.
In the early church description of the koinonia-fellowship, the sheep and shepherds gathered together, holding all things in common because they believed in the joyful abundance that God offers all people as a gift, as Grace! And it is no accident that when they came together they celebrated this in “the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Like the abundance of the gift of mana to Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness, and like the abundance of bread left over, 12 baskets full, from 5 loaves, in the Feeding of the 5,000, “the breaking of the bread” is the abundance of Jesus own crucified and risen body, shared over and over again in communion, given out in love, to save us and sustain us, without end.
Today we lift up those shepherding ministries we do through Lutheran Social Services of IL. Today we pray for a new Shepherd taking office that he may be devoted to the care of the flock. And today we come to the table of our Good Shepherd, hands and hearts open to the overwhelming abundance and salvation we are given, that we may learn to be shepherds for others, and give this “abundant life” we have, away to others.