Ever since I was a kid I’ve been a big fan of the Robin Hood stories. As most 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 Robin Hood stories Prince John is a self-serving tyrant who is taxing the people to death. Robin and his band of merry men live in Sherwood Forest, and they 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 to do away with corruption and put everything to rights.
So, at least, goes the legend! However, historians know that this is a very romantic view of Richard the Lionheart; he actually 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 his own country; the rest of it was spent in the Holy Land or journeys there and back. That includes a time when he was kept prisoner in France and his people were taxed to raise an enormous ransom to set him free! So if the people were putting their hope in Richard to set things right, they were going to be disappointed. Like many political leaders, he turned out to be a self-serving adventurer who didn’t have the true welfare of his people at heart.
Of course, we’re no strangers to the political Messiah syndrome in the modern world either. Over and over again we’ve had political leaders using overblown rhetoric to persuade us to vote for them; if they get in they’ll ‘drain the swamp’ and give us ‘change we can believe in’. And over and over again, it’s been ‘welcome to the new boss – the same as the old boss’. It seems to be very hard for weak and sinful human nature to withstand the temptations of greed and self-aggrandizement and the love of power.
Now, you might ask, what does this have to do with the Easter season, and with John chapter 10 and the idea of Jesus as the Good Shepherd? Stay tuned: all will be made clear!
In the message the early Church preached, one of the meanings of the Resurrection is that Jesus is the true Lord of all. On the day of Pentecost Peter preaches to a huge crowd in Jerusalem; here’s one of the things he says to them:
“This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you see and hear” (Acts 2:32-33).
‘The right hand of God’ is the place of authority. So it’s Jesus, and not Herod Antipas or Pontius Pilate or Caesar off in Rome, who has ultimate authority. Jesus, and not some earthly pretender, is the true Lord of all. As Peter goes on to say, “God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36). This is what the Resurrection means.
And this is also what John chapter ten means. In biblical times the image of the shepherd was a royal image; the kings and leaders of ancient Israel were thought of as shepherds of God’s people. This idea goes all the way back to King David, the shepherd boy who God chose to be ‘shepherd’ of his people Israel. We see it at the end of Psalm 78:
‘(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 what Jesus is talking about 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 were exploiting the people of God instead of caring for them. Jesus was claiming to be the true King of Israel, the Messiah, who would care for the people of God.
And yet, I hear you saying, was Jesus really a king? He didn’t grab political power, he didn’t run a government, and he didn’t lead an army; instead, he proclaimed the coming of God’s kingdom and told people that the way to be greatest in the eyes of God was to be the servant of all. All of that is definitely true, and so we have to go on to say that we can only call Jesus a ‘king’ if we are changing the definition of kingship. To him, it’s more to do with spiritual and moral leadership based on the love the King has for his people, and their commitment to following him.
But many people prefer to follow a worldly political leader. Presidents and prime ministers and dictators can get use their power to things done! 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, rather than in a romantic idealist like Jesus?
I can understand the attraction of that line of reasoning. But the problem is that all 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. 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 - 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 he is not like these people; he is the Good Shepherd. What makes him so good? Let’s look at today’s gospel reading 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. Look at John 10:9-10.
(Jesus said) “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 honest: 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 the talk about caring for their constituents, but they don’t walk the walk: when we watch their actions, we know that in the end it’s their own well being they’re dedicated to. 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 the joy and peace and sense of purpose that come from knowing God, from having the Spirit living in you, from learning the ways of God. He came to give us life: that’s 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; they’re just working their hours and earning their 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 them.
The shepherd in Jesus’ parable is the owner of the sheep; they belong to him, and he has a huge personal investment in them. This means he’s 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 the world we live in, it’s easy to get jaded about empty words. Businesses say 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 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 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 know their shepherd and the sound of his voice.
I had the privilege a few times to meet Ted Scott (he was Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada from 1971 to 1986). The first time 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 the Arctic. On the first evening of the conference I saw him looking at me; the next morning he said to me, “I don’t remember your name, but I’ve met you before, haven’t I?” 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. I found that really impressive; 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 unusual; I don’t think there are many shepherds who know their sheep 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 – our true King - 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; 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 this is true. For instance, if someone were to say to you ‘Jesus told his disciples that if they followed him he would make them rich’, 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 king with a compelling vision for us: he wants to give us life in all its fullness. We have a shepherd king with an absolute commitment to us: he was willing to lay down his life so that we could be saved. And we have a shepherd king 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 last 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. If you treat your pastor or priest as the Good Shepherd, you’re going to be disappointed.
So don’t do that. 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 had priests in his life, but he doesn’t say ‘The priest is my shepherd’. He says ‘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. And then give major time and attention to soaking up what the Gospels say about his life and teaching, so you can learn to know his voice and follow his leading. And when you get discouraged, remember his ultimate vision for you: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).