I may have mentioned to you a few times that I’ve always been a big fan of the Robin Hood stories. As many of you will know, Robin Hood is a legendary figure who is said to have lived in the late twelfth century in England, during the time of the Crusades. King Richard the Lion Heart was away leading a crusading army, and his brother Prince John was ruling the kingdom on his behalf. In the most popular versions of the Robin Hood stories, Prince John is seen as a self-serving tyrant who is taxing the people to death. Robin and his band of merrie men live in the Nottingham area and often confront Prince John’s local representative, the corrupt Sheriff of Nottingham. Robin and his men have been driven into the outlaw life, and they spend their time robbing from the rich and giving to the poor, in anticipation of the day when King Richard will return, do away with the corruption in the land, and put everything to rights again.
So, at least, goes the legend. However, historians know that this is a very romantic view of King Richard the Lionheart; he actually seems to have cared very little for the people of England, except as a tax base to support his very expensive foreign crusades. He was king for ten years but spent only a few months of that time in England; the rest of it was spent in the Holy Land or in journeys there and back, including a time when he was kept prisoner in France and his people were taxed to raise an enormous ransom to set him free. If the Robin Hood stories are true and the people were putting their hope in Richard to put things to rights in England, then they were disappointed; it turned out that it was in Richard’s name that Prince John and the Sheriff were doing all this taxing in the first place! Like many political leaders, Richard turned out to be a disappointment – a self-serving adventurer who did not have the true welfare of his people at heart.
Now, you might ask, what does the story of Robin Hood and Richard the Lionheart have to do with John chapter 10 and the idea of Jesus as the Good Shepherd? Here’s your answer: in biblical times the image of the shepherd was predominantly a royal image; the kings and leaders of ancient Israel were thought of as shepherds of God’s people. This idea was associated from ancient times with king David, who in his youth had been a shepherd boy, and who God chose to be the ‘shepherd’ of his people Israel. This idea is expressed at the end of Psalm 78 in these words:
‘(God) chose his servant David,
and took him from the sheepfolds;
from tending the nursing ewes he brought him
to be the shepherd of his people Jacob,
of Israel, his inheritance.
With upright heart he tended them,
and guided them with skillful hand’ (Psalm 78:70-72).
Later on, in Ezekiel chapter 34, the prophet delivers a thundering judgement against the corrupt kings of Israel:
‘Thus says the LORD God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals’ (34:2b-5).
This is the background to what Jesus has to say in John chapter 10. To claim to be ‘the Good Shepherd’ – not just ‘a’ good shepherd but ‘the’ Good Shepherd – is to claim to be a better king than the self-serving political and religious leaders who, as Ezekiel had said, were exploiting the people of God instead of caring for them. Jesus was making a political claim here: this is a claim to be the true King of Israel, the Messiah, who would care for the people of God as their great king David had cared for them. And yet, as he always does, Jesus subtly changes the definition of kingship here, so that it becomes more an issue of what we have come to call ‘pastoral care’ – ‘pastor’ is the Latin word for ‘shepherd’ – than political power.
But many people would prefer to follow a worldly political leader. After all, worldly politicians do seem to have a track record of getting stuff done, don’t they? They can command budgets of trillions of dollars, they can send powerful armies on crusades to set things right, and they can do practical things to make the lives of people better. Isn’t it better to put our hope in these people to bring lasting change in the world - ‘change we can believe in’ - rather than in a shadowy religious figure such as Jesus?
The problem is that all of these political leaders turn out to be disappointments in the end; even the best of them are imperfect people, with sins and weaknesses and skeletons in the closet, and even though they talk as if they’re going to build the new Jerusalem, it ends up only being New York! Even those who start out claiming to have the welfare of the people in mind - like the Bolsheviks in Russia at the beginning of the twentieth century, or Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe in the late seventies - often end up being just like the evil tyrants they replaced. And of course, even the best of them retire or die one day, and then a lot depends on those who follow them; will they continue on the same path? And so the psalmist says,
‘Do not put your trust in princes,
in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
on that very day their plans perish’ (Psalm 146:3-4).
Jesus says that he is not like these people; he is the Good Shepherd. What makes him so good? Let’s look at the whole first half of John 10 to get an answer to that question. One thing we’ll notice as we look at these verses is that Jesus is a very unusual shepherd. In fact, all three of the characteristics we’re going to mention are not things we’d usually find in a shepherd at all.
The first thing I want to mention is what he has in mind for his sheep. In verses 9-10 Jesus says:
I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
The thing that makes this unusual is that Jesus is entirely devoted to the well being of his sheep – not for what he can get out of them, but just for their own sake. Let’s be frank here: most shepherds want healthy sheep, but it’s because of what they can get out of them. Whether they’re keeping sheep for the sake of their wool, or because they want the meat, they aren’t doing it out of the goodness of their hearts; they’re trying to make a living, and that’s what the sheep are for. In other words, most shepherds look after their sheep in order to exploit them.
Some politicians talk a good line about caring for their constituents, but when we watch their actions, we know that in the end it’s their own well being that they’re dedicated to. But Jesus is different; he’s committed to the well being of his sheep. His vision for us is that we might have life, and have it abundantly – or, as some translations say, ‘life in all its fullness’. Jesus isn’t interested in taking things away from you unless they are things that ultimately diminish your life. But what he’s really about is adding to your life; he wants to add that joy and peace and sense of purpose that come from knowing God, from having the Holy Spirit living in you, from learning the ways of God. We sometimes say to people, ‘Get a life’; Jesus doesn’t only say it, he gives it to us as well. This is his vision for his sheep.
The second thing I want to mention is the depth of his commitment to his sheep. A hired worker has no personal investment in the sheep; he’s just putting in his time and earning his wages. If some of the sheep get lost or sick or die, it might be a bad reflection on the hired worker but it doesn’t have a personal impact on him.
The shepherd, on the other hand, is also the owner of the sheep; they belong to him, and he has a huge personal investment in them. This means that he is even willing to sacrifice himself on their behalf; as Jesus says in verse 11: ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep’. This perhaps would have strained the credulity of Jesus’ hearers a little; I doubt if they’d known too many shepherds who were willing to die to protect their sheep. All the more reason why Jesus is such a Good Shepherd; his sheep are so important to him that he is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice on their behalf.
In the first letter of John we read: ‘We know love by this, that (Jesus) laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another’ (1 John 3:16). In our world today it’s easy to get jaded about words of love and caring. Businesses say in their advertising that they really care for their customers, and we’ve heard politicians talking about how their constituents are so important to them, but all too often the actions don’t match up with the words. But John goes on to say, ‘Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action’ (1 John 3:18). This is what Jesus did; he didn’t just speak words of love, but gave his life on the Cross for us, so that we could be saved.
That’s the value God sets on each one of us. Sometimes we don’t feel as if we’re worth very much; sometimes we might even wonder if God knows that we exist at all. If we feel that way, we should look to the Cross, where Jesus died, and say to ourselves, ‘That’s how much God loves me. That’s how far Jesus was willing to go to save me’. He is the good shepherd, and the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.
We’ve seen what he has in mind for his sheep, and the depth of his commitment to his sheep. The third thing I want you to notice is the intimacy of his relationship with each individual sheep. Look at John 10:3-4:
‘The gatekeeper opens the gate for (the shepherd), and the sheep hear his voice. 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’.
There’s a two-way relationship here: the shepherd knows his sheep by name, and the sheep in their turn know their shepherd and the sound of his voice.
It was my privilege on a number of occasions to meet Ted Scott, who was Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada from 1971 to 1986. The first time I met him was at a clergy retreat in Saskatoon in the spring of 1980; he was the retreat speaker, and he and I had a conversation on the first evening of the retreat. Our next meeting was five years later, at a clergy conference in Fort Smith in the Northwest Territories. On the first evening of the conference I saw him looking at me; the next morning I bumped into him in the chapel, and he said to me, “I don’t remember your name, but I’ve met you before, haven’t I? I think it was at a clergy retreat in Saskatoon, wasn’t it?” I was amazed at his memory and I quickly reminded him of my name. I saw him at national meetings several times after that, and he always remembered my name. To me that was an amazing thing; as Primate of Canada he must have met thousands of people every year, and yet somehow he was able to treat each one as an individual and remember their names.
Jesus does not treat us as members of a collective. Jesus is the good shepherd; he knows your name, and he knows my name too. Again, I suspect this is fairly unusual; I suspect there aren’t too many shepherds who actually give names to their sheep and know them by name, but Jesus does.
But it works the other way too, and this is perhaps the challenge this reading has for us. Jesus says, ‘the sheep follow (the shepherd) 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’ (John 10:4-5). The challenge is for us to get to know the voice of our good shepherd, so that we may be sure it’s really him we’re following and not a stranger who cares nothing for us.
The most important way for us to get to know the voice of Jesus is by hearing what he has to say in the gospels. The gospels give us a vivid and compelling picture of Jesus, and it’s not hard for us to form an impression of the sort of person he is and the sort of things he has to say. You know that this is true; if someone were to say to you, for instance, that Jesus once told his disciples that if they followed him he would shower material wealth on them, you’d shake your head and think to yourself, ‘That doesn’t sound like something Jesus would say!’ So you see, you’ve already begun to get to know his voice. Keep reading the gospels, keep meditating on what Jesus has to say there, keep doing your best to put it into practice in your life, and you’ll find yourself getting a better and better sense of what his voice sounds like.
So we have a shepherd with a compelling vision for us: he wants to give us life in all its fullness. We have a shepherd with an absolute commitment to us, to the point that he was willing to give his life on the cross so that we might be saved. And we have a shepherd who wants to have a close personal relationship with each of us, a relationship in which he knows us by name and in which we get to know the sound of his voice and learn to follow his leading.
One more thing: many pastors and priests see these words of Jesus as a model for their ministry, and to a certain extent there’s nothing wrong with that. But the trouble is that pastors and priests are only human, and inevitably we fail. So let me warn you not to see me or any other human pastor as your good shepherd. Don’t fall into the trap of turning to a human pastor for the shepherding that only the Good Shepherd can give you. Remember the words of David in our psalm for today; he doesn’t say ‘The priest is my shepherd’ but ‘the Lord is my shepherd’. So: pray that the Holy Spirit will fill you and help you get to know the real Good Shepherd, who gave his life for you and who knows you by name. Learn to know his voice and follow his leading. That’s the way to experience the abundant life that he promises us.