April 30, 2023
We read a portion of this passage from the gospel of John every year around the 4th Sun. after Easter. The image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is one everyone knows.
To get John’s setting right we should note that this passage comes right after Jesus has healed a blind man –on the Sabbath. It had created quite a controversy because the Pharisees didn’t believe the healing was authentic and accused the man of faking blindness to support Jesus. They then kicked the man out of the synagogue. We had that story back in March. Jesus tells this parable as a response.
So, for all its bucolic imagery which we all remember from Sunday school, this parable starts with the backdrop of the religious elite being frustrated and angry. –Angry, that this upstart from the hinterlands, is causing a lot of clamor on a holy day, even though they deny the healing even happened. They are no doubt saying their equivalent of “Fake News!” about the man’s healing, on the one hand, and then chastising Jesus for violating the Sabbath by healing right in the Temple courtyard.
-And this was no ordinary holy day. It was the Feast of the Dedication (the holiday we know today as Hanukkah, when Jewish people celebrate the rededication of the Temple after the victory of Judas Maccabeus in 2nd century BCE). So this holy-day was loaded with political ramifications, especially the hope of freedom from foreign domination. It was something of a religious 4th of July celebration. With Jerusalem’s population swelling to around two to three times its normal population for this festival, the air had to be filled with religious and political anticipation. The Romans, understandably, don’t want crowds getting too excited with religious fervor as they celebrate the ancient fight for independence.
And so, here Jesus is, in trouble again! Mind you he has already done his Temple cleansing in John, you remember, overturning tables & critiquing how the Temple is being run. Not to mention he has all along been breaking some of the religious rules, and now this, stirring up this emotional crowd with a healing on a high holy day. A healing that demonstrated God’s power in the world and his own prophetic credentials.
Caiaphas, who was the High Priest during Jesus’ ministry, had the longest tenure of all the high priests appointed by Rome, -there were 18 appointed during the 80 year reconstruction of the temple- so we assume he worked the hardest to accommodate Rome’s expectations of keeping the protests and unrest down during the religious festivals as well as overseeing the workings of the temple and its staff. Perhaps he didn’t want the festival goers getting too excited about this messianic prophet during the Hanukkah celebration.
Some commentators even suggest that “The Wolf” in the parable might be a veiled reference to Rome –that dominating power that had devoured Israel –and all else in the Mediterranean area.
Rome considered Judaism an historic faith, but it wasn’t about to let any longings for independence and self-determination go unchecked. -Not unlike Russia’s attitude towards Ukraine, I suppose.
Coming as it does then, in the context of religious and political holy-day tension between Jesus and the established religious authorities this Shepherding passage takes on a harder edge in its tone. Might Jesus have been making a jab at those “Hired hands” of Rome when he contrasts himself as the true shepherd, not a hired hand who runs away when the sheep are in danger?
There was a biblical history of course of using the shepherding metaphor. –In Psalm 23 God is the Good Shepherd. The Prophets often accuse religious and political leaders as being bad shepherds in their critique of the injustice of their times.–And, of course, King David was viewed as the epitome of the “Good Shepherd King” who looked after the welfare of the people and gave the nation security –not to mention, he started out as a shepherd boy.
Shepherding in itself is far more gritty than the image often conjures up in our minds. We usually have that pastoral picture in mind of a quiet green pasture with a flock of gentle sheep with a shepherd calmly standing by leaning on his long staff… Or perhaps, the pristine picture of a smiling Jesus carrying a young lamb on his shoulders. He’s dressed, of course, in a flowing clean white robe. –Never mind that most shepherds in the first century had only one robe that they wore all the time and it rarely stayed clean –even when they got a chance to wash it every few weeks! –They were a part of pheasant class after all, out with the animals, the grass, the dirt and the manure.
Domesticated Sheep are gentle animals, but they do get sick and lost, and preyed upon, all of which the shepherd has to be on watch for…twenty four seven. –Shepherding was not a “White Collar” job…any more than herding cattle is. You are in the fields spring through fall no matter the weather.
The truth is first century Judeans may have romanticized the job just as we romanticize being a cowboy. For them shepherding had all these associations with King David, with a purer, freer, more gallant, earlier life in their history. But in truth it was a low wage pheasant job in the first century. That’s why “Hirelings” or hired hands were not the most dependable folks and not too often willing to risk their lives for some wealthy man’s sheep. –And yes, human beings do sometimes act like lost sheep! Rollo May the esteemed psychologist once said, “Humans are the strangest of all God’s creatures, because they run the fastest when the have lost their way.”
–All that added to the backdrop of the contrast between the “Good Shepherd” and the “Hired Hand”.
In the parable then, Jesus says more than one simple thing. Yes, he says rather clearly that he represents the authentic caring of God. That he is God’s representative on earth… trying to guide and nurture… lead and protect… providing security and a full life for those in his care….those who follow him. –And says rather emphatically that as the ‘Good Shepherd’ he willingly is ready to lay down his life for the sheep.
But Jesus may also be making a rather pointed jab at the religious elite who are appointed from the upper classes by Rome… to serve the interests of Rome…
He may even have been hitting at that domination system of first century politics which saw the small upper class own most of the land –which was the primary means of wealth– and hired out laborers for subsistence wages. –It was an economic system of domination as well as a political system of domination.
God’s coming kingdom, you remember, Jesus said, was to be different than this one: –“The first will be last and the last first” –A rather revolutionary statement when you consider the politics of the day. At the very least he was saying that God’s intention for the world was something totally different than the setup that had privilege for the few and poverty and domination for the masses.
From the start, John’s gospel has a very elevated sense of who Jesus is –The One who comes as the incarnation of the Creator, “The Word made flesh”, – who critiques the world and all its systems. But John also portrays Jesus as one who offers himself as reconciling gift and as a light to shine amid the darkness and a shepherd to follow and rely on through all the trials of our lives, and finally the Risen Christ who reigns on high.
May that Christ shepherd your lives and give you peace and strength.