The Folly of the Love of the Shepherd (Jn 10:11-18)
Today, the 4th Sunday of Easter is celebrated as the Good Shepherd Sunday. We think of the ‘pastoral’ love of God, as we also pray for vocations to priesthood; priests are the ‘pastors’ of the church. Each year, for the gospel reading, we hear one part of John 10. This year, being Year B, we listen to the second part of that chapter. Today, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (Jn 10:11). His statement has two parts, and these parts form the structure of my reflection today.
1. I am the Good Shepherd
Jesus was not the first to use the image of the shepherd. Even in the civil society the concept of the shepherd was used among kings and rulers, prior to the time of Jesus. In the statues and images of ancient Egyptian pharaohs, they are often depicted holding a shepherd’s staff. We could even say that the concept of a leader being a shepherd is as old as the concept of monarchy itself.
In the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), the image of the shepherd is used to refer to the leaders of the people of Israel. God calls Moses not only when he is tending the flock of his father-in-law (Ex 3:1), but Moses is given a shepherd’s staff (Ex 4:2) that he was already holding, now as a symbol of leadership, authority and the power of God.
Again, David was not just a shepherd boy, but when the people of all the tribes of Israel went to David at Hebron to anoint him as their king, they said, “Yahweh promised, “You are to shepherd my people Israel and be leader of Israel” (2 Sam 5:1-3).
We have the prophets again and again referring to the leaders of Israel as shepherds; they also refer to God as the true shepherd of the people.
· Prophet Isaiah declares, “Behold, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms, he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young” (Is 40:10-11).
· And in Jeremiah, “Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who care for my people: “You have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. … I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, says the Lord” (Jer 23: 2-4).
· Finally, in Ezekiel, the Lord God says, “I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd” (Ezek 34: 23).
So the image of the shepherd has been there in the long tradition of Israel. And Jesus just takes on this image. But what makes Jesus’ image of the shepherd unique and special is what we read in John 10. As I see, there are two themes that come out very powerfully in John 10. These themes are repeated over and over again in the chapter. In these themes we see a new and powerful image of the God of Christianity: one, “I know my own and my own know me” (Jn 10:14); and two, “The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep” (Jn 10:11,15,17,18). I shall pick up the second theme for the rest of my reflection.
2. The Shepherd lays down his life for the sake of the sheep.
John 10 overflows with these phrases: I lay down my life for my sheep… I lay it down of my own free will… I have power to lay it down. In the text that we heard read this morning, this phrase was repeated at least 4 times. Very telling, isn’t it? Shepherd is ready to lay down his life for his sheep. What a folly! God is ready to lay down his life for the sake of mere humans like us!
There was a scripture professor of mine who was fond of using a very interesting image to bring out this absurdity of the love of God for us – much like the folly of the Shepherd. Imagine that someone of you loves cockroaches, those wretched creatures that are a nuisance in the kitchen. You really pity how wretched they are and you want to help them out. And let’s say, you have the power to become a cockroach. So you become a cockroach and you live among them. You eat like them, you talk like them, you walk like them… and you start guiding them. You start showing them how they can live their lives fully. But alas, one day these cockroaches get tired of you, they turn against you, and they kill you!
Why, this is exactly what happened to God in the person of Jesus: He became one of us, and he was killed! So when Jesus tells us, I am ready to lay down my life for the sheep. Isn’t it absurd? And what else, he really did it. Isn’t it so consoling to know that God loves us so passionately?
May the experience of the love of God become a reality for us, especially during this Eastertide!
Fr. Franco Pereira, S.D.B.