Gospel: John 10 (The lectionary chooses only the first 10 verses, but the chapter stands better as a whole.)
‘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.2The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.3The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.5They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.’6Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
7 So again Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.8All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them.9I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
11 ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.12The 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.13The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.14I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me,15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.16I 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.17For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.18No one takesit 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.’
19 Again the Jews were divided because of these words.20Many of them were saying, ‘He has a demon and is out of his mind. Why listen to him?’21Others were saying, ‘These are not the words of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?’
I want life, and to have it abundantly. I am greedy for understanding. I thirst for knowing what life is about. I long for some peace, some satisfaction. I wish my hunger could be filled and that the emptiness, the uncertainty and the plain unknowing, and the absolute aloneness did not drag hollow and aching, eating me from the inside out. If only I were not so tired, and had some reasonable hopes of being content, of being filled, of being satisfied!
Jesus said the thieves and the bandits have climbed into the sheepfold, and that they have come to steal and kill and destroy. Sometimes it feels to me that all my good fortune and affluence does not matter. There have been few of the thieves, and few of the wolves, that invade other lives, but what good is that to me? The sheep fold is empty and sterile. I surely need a shepherd who will call me out, who will call my name and lead me to good pastures.
I simply want him to call my name. I’ve had it with grand schemes of theology. Their temples have been empty. They do not satisfy for long. They do not live up to their promise. After the initial excitement, I realise I still have mud in my eyes. I cannot see. I have no more life than before. I am blind. I can hear no one calling my name. I am a cripple. I am alone.
As I sit alone with the other sheep, John warns me about all those will come calling my name, offering salvation. They are like so many spammers, jumping over the firewall of my life promising bigger things and greater harvests. Only trust the ones who come in by the gate which is Jesus. The rest are blind guides, if not intent on thieving and stealing. Measure their promise of life by Jesus’ teaching rather than the claims of growth and riches.
In fact, Jesus is not a divine spam filter who will keep me safe at home, says John. Jesus is the good shepherd who will call me out into abundant life. Like the best of all shepherds he will put his life on the line for me. He will lay down his life for me. He will not run for his own safety like the hired man. I am his and he is mine.
The poetry stops. The metaphor fades. And I am left alone wondering what all this means. Is there any substance to feed the hunger of my starved life, or is it simply all confection and concoction?
I can see the allusions in the text. How by the time of John’s writing the hired hands might be an oblique reference to the religious elite who did deals with the Romans while Jerusalem was under siege; how Jesus calls his sheep out of the sheepfold, out into the freedom of life without the walls of the Pharisees and the Judeans; how the religious elite were like thieves and robbers who did not come through the gate of Jesus’ truth; how their so called truth served to kill and destroy... all this is clear. It’s part of the swirling tapestry of John, along with the allusion to Numbers 27 where there is another Joshua who “shall go out and come in... so that the congregation of the Lord shall not be like a sheep without a shepherd.” I will find more echoes of the tradition in the cross referencing in my Bible. ‘Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture,’ says the Lord in Jeremiah 23. “’I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing,’ says the Lord.”
Except that I am dismayed, even as my heart is excited by the songs. For the words ring out with the appearance of substance, and then disappear as I grasp at them, like smoke curling away from a fire. They dissolve in my grasp, floating away on the breeze. They will not be held. For this shepherd does not give me any thing. This shepherd gives me promises of wind. There is no gospel to hold and to own. There is no security to grasp onto. There is only a shepherd to follow. There is only what I most want! which is a voice calling my name.
But it is a voice calling my name to come do the things I least want to do. It is a voice calling me to leave my safe place, such as it is, and come out into the world; a voice calling me to do the most concrete and solid acts of love, helping the poor and seeking for justice, and loving the unlovable— all of which have the most uncertain and unpredictable of outcomes.
If I want that voice calling my name— I think that is what I am hearing— if I want that voice calling my name to be clear and certain and comforting, I must leave what little comfort I have, and follow the shepherd out into new pastures. And know that to follow him means I may well cry, and probably will cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
And that seems a poor bargain, and a very risky enterprise. My lonely study and my miserable mortgage seem much more comfortable, until I remember that I want life; until the mud is washed from my eyes again, and I see with a great healed unblindedness how little life a mortgage, and the favour of a few so called friends, offers me. If I want more, if I want abundant life then all there is on offer, is a shepherd who will lead me into an unknown that can only be described with the poetry of a yearning heart. No guarantees. Just a voice calling my name.
Andrew Prior 2011
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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