The Good Shepherd: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Easter 4
1) This is the fourth of the seven weeks of Eastertide. The gospel readings for the first three weeks were resurrection appearance stories; the next four weeks will explore Jesus’ teachings about living in intimacy with God.
2) Many early followers of Jesus would have been familiar with describing the promised messiah as a caring and skillful “shepherd”: Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel each use such language, and likewise, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Zechariah contrast the divine shepherd with “worthless shepherds” who neglect, exploit, and scatter the flock. For listeners today, Psalm 23 (this week’s psalm) is likely the best-known reference to God as a shepherd, with the “rod and staff” evoking the hazards of the wilderness: the rod is for fending off wolves and lions, and the staff for rescuing sheep trapped in thickets or crevasses.
3) In the next chapter (John 11), the high priest Caiaphas will unwittingly and ironically prophesy that “Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God” (John 11:51-2). And in the chapter after that, Jesus explains to his disciples that after his resurrection and ascension, “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). In other words, woven through these three chapters is John’s notion of salvation beyond expected or conventional bounds: “dispersed children of God,” “all people” - and, in this week’s passage, “other sheep.”
1) In the phrase “good shepherd,” the Greek word translated as “good” (kalos) means not “morally good” but rather “real and proper” or “true,” as in, “I am the true shepherd” or “I am the genuine shepherd.” But what is that, exactly? It may be helpful to begin the reading not with verse 11 (“I am the good shepherd”) but with verse 10b, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd…” The goal of the true shepherd’s work is to give the sheep abundant life. And what is “abundant life”? For John, it’s a life of love and intimacy with God (John will go on to describe this intimacy in next week’s reading as so close as to be comparable to the relationship between a vine and its branches). To give the sheep this fullness of life, Jesus is willing to lay down his own.
2) But we may ask: How will the sheep be better off if the shepherd dies? If a wolf comes and the shepherd steps in and gets killed - well, this might buy the sheep a little time, but won’t the wolf just come for them next? And all the more easily now, since the shepherd is dead? Clearly John has something else in mind. As we’ve seen earlier in this commentary, in John’s gospel, Jesus’ death is just the first movement in a larger symphony that will swell to even greater crescendos on Easter morning and beyond. “Laying down his life” is a crucial and difficult step for Jesus to take, but then he will rise from the dead, ascend from the earth, and "draw all people;” the Holy Spirit will arrive on the scene, the church will be born, and the ecclesial community will go on to do what Jesus calls “greater works than these” (John 14:12). For John, Jesus’ death makes possible this surprising chain of events, this grand reversal and unfolding entrée into “abundant life.” This is what it means for "the good shepherd to lay down his life for the sheep."
3) We can discern a similar pattern of thought in Acts 4. Before the council, Peter declares that Jesus is “the stone that was rejected by you, the builders,” the very stone which now “has become the chief cornerstone.” Peter is quoting Psalm 118 - but he’s also quoting Jesus, who himself alluded to the psalm in the context of a parable just a few pages earlier in the story (see Luke 20:17; Luke and Acts have the same author). The parable is about a vineyard’s tenants rejecting the owner’s messengers and finally the owner’s beloved son. Hoping to steal the son’s inheritance, they kill him - only to have the owner reject them and give the vineyard to others. In this way, both Jesus and Peter frame the crucifixion as an enactment of the psalm’s ancient choreography. The beloved son is killed - but that’s not the end of the story. The murderers get their comeuppance and the vineyard is given to others. The rejected stone becomes the cornerstone (or “the keystone”) of an even greater edifice. For Peter, that edifice is the church. Similarly, for John, the fact that Jesus is rejected and killed ultimately makes possible his resurrection, ascension, and the birth of the ecclesial community. Unbeknownst to his killers, Jesus’ death is just the first act in this larger dramatic reversal.
4) Beneath and throughout all of this is the dynamic of an ever-expanding circle of salvation. The vineyard is given to others. The Jewish messiah, Luke and John and the whole New Testament insists, will also embrace Gentiles. Jesus ascends and “will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). In this week’s passage from John, Jesus puts the same theme this way: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold” (John 10:16). Precisely who these sheep are is left unspecified; that’s the shepherd’s business, not ours. The practical effect of this teaching for us today is that we dare not imagine anyone to be outside of God’s flock (even those who reject Jesus!); for all we know, in the end the flock may well include “all people.”
1) The ancient prophets’ critique of the “bad shepherds” is both clarifying and convicting for Christian churches today. Ezekiel pulls no punches: “You have not strengthened the weak,...healed the sick,...bound up the injured,...brought back the strayed,...sought the lost… So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals” (Ezekiel 34:2-5). Embedded in this critique is the church’s job description, and a challenging standard against which to measure our work.
2) Jesus lays down his life - for the sake of resurrection. Jesus rises from the tomb - for the sake of ascension. Jesus ascends - for the sake of "drawing all people,” and for the sake of the Holy Spirit’s arrival that gives birth to the church. And the church is born - ultimately for the sake of what Jesus calls “greater works than these” (John 14:12). Good Friday and Easter morning, far from the story’s climax, was actually only the beginning! The church is formed and called to be the good shepherd’s hands and feet, protecting and nourishing the sheep for the sake of the good life, the real and genuine life, the abundant life - not abundant in possessions, but rather in dignity, beauty, and love. Call it “life in God,” a fully human life in which we abide in God, and God abides in us (John 15:4).
3) Finally, many Christians today wonder how we should think of people who belong to other religions, or to no religion at all. The enigmatic idea of God having “other sheep” can help in at least two ways: first, as a guardrail against ever presuming that we can draw a definitive circle around the beloved children of God (as if we could ever say, “these, not those”); and second, as an encouragement to trust that in the end, God will save all people, and indeed all of creation, in a final restoration of all things for which we hope and pray (Acts 3:21; John 12:32).