Today has many names. Many will be celebrating today as Mother’s Day. Many Christians also observe today as Christian Family Sunday. As we have sung and heard this morning, today’s scriptures are related to the image of the shepherd found in Psalm 23 and John 10. So today is often called “Good Shepherd Sunday.” The image of the shepherd prevalent in Christianity comes to us from the Jewish tradition. This shepherd image reveals to us the character of God who provides us with protection, wellbeing and eternal life. This image also provides the image of vulnerability – the suffering servant.
Let us look at today’s gospel reading from John. In John’s image of the shepherd, the shepherd cares for and protects the flock, returns lost sheep to the fold and feeds the flock. John speaks of the “good” character of the shepherd: “[The Shepherd gives the sheep] eternal life, so that they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28). Here we assume that the good shepherd puts the well-being of the flock ahead of everything else, even the shepherd’s own life. The shepherd situates himself in vulnerability to protect sheep from dangers.
In the context of religion, we can hardly conceive of Christianity without the image and role of the shepherd. In the birth story of Jesus, for example, no Christmas programme is complete without its little band of gunnysack shepherds. According to Luke’s story, there were “shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night.” Then, the “glory of the Lord shone around them” as an angel told them of the birth of Jesus. Shepherds were witnesses to the birth of Jesus.
At this point, however, we need to pay attention to how shepherds were situated on the social ladder, because, in Jesus’ time, shepherds stood on the bottom rung of Palestinian society. They shared the same unenviable status as tax collectors do. According to the New Testament scholar of the social history of Jesus’ day, Joachim Jeremias, shepherds were “despised in everyday life.” In general, they were considered second-class and untrustworthy. Shepherds were deprived of all civil rights. They could not fulfill judicial offices or be admitted in court as witnesses. Jeremias continues, “To buy wool, milk or a kid from a shepherd was forbidden on the assumption that it would be stolen property.”
With this background in view, we may wonder along with Jeremias: “The rabbis ask with amazement how, in view of the despicable nature of shepherds, one can explain why God was named, ‘my shepherd’ in Psalm 23,” since shepherds were officially labeled “sinners”—a technical term for a class of despised people.
In this social context of religious snobbery and class prejudice, the gospel writers broke down the social ladder in claiming Jesus as the good shepherd (John10:11); today’s gospel also says the “shepherd gives sheep eternal life (John 10:28);” further, in the Epistles, Christ is also named the great shepherd (Hebrews 13:20) and the chief shepherd (1 Peter 5:4). No other illustration is so vividly portrayed as that of the shepherd’s tender care and guiding hand. The core image of Jesus as the messiah is that of the shepherd: these were and are shocking statements describing the expected messiah in the social context of the time.
So, we may raise the question of why the image of Jesus as shepherd was lifted up in a social context when shepherds were considered “sinners” along with tax collectors.
When John says, “Jesus is the good shepherd,” what is so good about it? Even though in everyday language we use the word, “good” frequently, there may be a danger in a too casual usage. Let me give an example. After the service, I sometimes hear, “That was a good sermon.” Such feedback can be a compliment and may often be meant as such, but what does it mean to say it was good? I often wonder what was good about a sermon, particularly when I had hoped I had asked difficult questions or made challenging comments or criticized some aspect of our lives. When we use the word, “good,” we tend to think about its opposite – bad. When someone says the sermon was good, I immediately wonder what was bad about it. Are many of my sermons bad? We may quickly characterize a sermon as either good or bad and then assign it to that category, which effectively closes reflection or discussion about the subject matter or the questions raised in it. We may quickly assign the subject to a binary opposition: good/bad, left/right or male/female. As a result, there may be little interpretive imagination located in what makes Jesus the “good” shepherd. So, before we answer the question with the simplistic answer, “He’s good because he’s not bad,” we need to think more deeply about what makes Jesus the “good” shepherd.
If Jesus is ‘the good shepherd’, what is so good in the shepherd image? The gospels record many reasons. According to the gospel message, Jesus is the good shepherd because he is the source of abundant life, first to the man born blind – giving him the gift of new life. Jesus is the good shepherd because he finds the man born blind after the blind man has been expelled from the faith community (9:35). Jesus is the good shepherd because he knows his sheep and he calls them by name. Jesus is the good shepherd because he acts for justice for all and acts against the corrupt religious system and Roman colonial power. He risks his life for the sake of justice. Jesus is the good shepherd because he puts the well-being of the flock ahead of everything else, even the shepherd’s own life. Jesus is the good shepherd because he cares for every one of the sheep and does not treat any of them like an item or a number or a faceless consumer. He loves us as beloved sons and daughters of God (Mark 1:11); he loves us as his own.
You may think of other reasons why we name Jesus ‘the good shepherd’. What are your reasons? Why is Jesus the good shepherd for you? During this week let us reflect on this question and search for what it means to be good shepherds in our daily work, in the practices of our faith community and in the lives of our sisters and brothers around God’s world. The good shepherd embodied by Jesus gives us abundant life. Even though people in Jesus’ time often held the image of shepherds as sinners they found the biblical image of Jesus, the ‘good shepherd’ as the source of abundant life. Living in this 21st century, we also trust Jesus as our shepherd who encourages us to build abundant communities where all are cared for by good shepherds like you. We trust that abundant life is attainable through the spirit of the good shepherd. For all these reasons, we call Jesus our good shepherd. Thanks be to God, the good shepherd who is always with us. Amen.