by David Pattinson
Reflection Easter 4 John 10:11-18 “I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.”
Anthony de Mello was an Indian Jesuit priest, a well known spiritual teacher and writer. His work blended Eastern and Western spirituality, and included much storytelling. In his book “The Song of the Bird”, he includes this story. ““A sheep found a hole in the fence and crept through it. It wandered far and lost its way back. Then the sheep realised that it was being followed by a wolf. The sheep ran and ran, but the wolf kept chasing him, until the shepherd came and rescued the sheep and carried him lovingly back to the fold. In spite of everyone’s urgings to the contrary, the shepherd refused to nail up the hole in the fence.”
I found myself in sympathy with this inquisitive sheep. As we emerge from lockdown, I feel as though it’s time to “break out”. The parable so much echoes this morning’s passage from John’s gospel, which starts with what Stephen Verney in his commentary on John, “Water into Wine”, describes as “the most famous words in John’s gospel”- “I am the Good Shepherd!”
Why is it that the Good Shepherd leaves the way out open? This seems to speak of Free Will; of Choice – God saying that I don’t want a relationship based on coercion. But I think it also speaks of who God is. God is Love; God is the epitome of love. And true love and coercion do not live together.
And Jesus provides an ultimate expression of love in his definition of a good shepherd – someone who lays down his life for the sheep. In just 8 verses Jesus repeats this phrase 5 times. And there is something unique about His “laying down” of life. It would no doubt have been a rare event for a Shepherd to die whilst guarding his flock, and in no way embraced. It would also have been disastrous for the flock – quite literally there would have been sheep without a shepherd. But the extent of the Love of God for each of us extends to Jesus willingly laying his life down of his own accord. And the result is the opposite of disastrous. For this death is the source of “life in all its fullness.” not just for the Shepherd but for the sheep as well.
But there is a catch. What Jesus also makes clear is that being his disciples involves our laying down our lives as well. “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:25). There is a necessary refocusing of our lives away from ourselves and towards Jesus and the service of others. Perhaps it is not surprising that in the great prophetic chapter 53 of Isaiah where Jesus is described as “like a sheep before the shearer”, Isaiah also says ““All we like sheep have gone astray, we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
If the challenge of discipleship involves the question “what are you prepared to die for? Are you prepared to die for me?”, we need to have a good deal of trust in the Good Shepherd. And this image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd has a number of elements which signpost us to the truth that we are restored and given life by the love of God in Jesus. That we are drawn to choose His sheepfold.
- The word translated Good can also mean beautiful. William Temple in his commentary points out the word does not describe morals but rather attractiveness.
- And key to the attractiveness of this Good Shepherd is that he lays down his life for the sheep. What we see in Jesus is love in action – love as a verb; we see sacrificial love; we see knowledgable love.
- And indeed this Good Shepherd has an intimate knowledge of His sheep. “ I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.” I was reading about a conversation with a modern day shepherd in the Pacific north west. “At one point I asked our shepherd friend, “Why do you think the sheep trust you?” He said, undoubtedly they knew he provided for them and protected them. But it’s more than that, he said. He was convinced that the sheep think he is one of them.“ And indeed in Jesus God does become one of us.
- Today’s psalm, 23, shows that the Good Shepherd provides sustenance; refreshment; guidance; companionship through the most difficult circumstances; a promise of hospitality. Even, “Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me” and this is Comfort as in the sense of providing strength. The queen’s much quoted comment about Prince Philip “My strength and my stay” comes to mind. Philip always 2 steps behind. But Jesus our shepherd is much more. “Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left, Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ when I arise,” (St Patrick)
Here in The Good Shepherd is an image that provides so many reasons to place our trust in the God who is love, and who, as in De Mello’s parable, is always seeking to rescue us and bring us lovingly back to the fold if we stray. Let me close with a prayer
As I travel the road of life,
Shepherd-King walk beside me.
As I fall into pot-holes,
Shepherd-King raise me.
As I baulk at the rough places,
Shepherd-King encourage me.
As I wander away from you,
Shepherd-King lead me.
As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
Shepherd-King surround me. Amen