The gospel text for this week is the part of the Good Shepherd narrative from John 10:11-18. As a colleague remarked, the Good Shepherd is supposed to be comforting and almost cuddly. At least that’s the image: Jesus with children, the good Shepherd with lambs. But this Good Shepherd text is not so cuddly. Jesus is firm, strong, and provokes division in those who hear.
On the one hand, we see Jesus’ fierce determination on behalf of his people. Jesus distinguishes between hired field hands, who do not own the sheep and are only charged to care for them: they will not guard the sheep at the point of attack. And then there is the Good Shepherd, to whom the sheep belong, and who will lay down his life for the sheep. This imagery has a rich history in Israel’s story, particularly in Ezekiel. The kings of God’s people have not been faithful shepherds, and so God himself will be their shepherd. In Jesus of Nazareth, the prophecy has been fulfilled and God has come to be the shepherd of God’s people; he will lay down his life to protect them, they will be safe in his fold and not be scattered.
Recently, I heard someone refer to their pastor with the image of a shepherd. Much as Jesus commissions Peter to “feed my lambs,” the pastor is often understood to be a shepherd to God’s sheep. But this text challenges that imagery in a helpful way. If a pastor is a shepherd, then at best the pastor is a hired hand: the hired hand doesn’t own the sheep, doesn’t lay down his life for them. the hired hand is there to tend the field while the shepherd is gone… But the Good Shepherd is not gone! Jesus is here in the power of the Spirit, the Good Shepherd stays with the flock.
Many pastors feel more like a sheepdog than a shepherd, herding and nudging and protecting God’s flock. The Good Shepherd gathers the flock, seeks out the ones who get lost; the Good Shepherd tends the gate, and opens it for new sheep to come in; the Good Shepherd leads the sheep to green pastures and still waters; the Good Shepherd keeps the flock together, even at the risk of his own life. The sheepdog, loyal assistant, herds the flock, circles them together, nudges them toward the Shepherd. With speed and agility, the sheepdog helps the Shepherd. It’s a beautiful image for pastoral ministry. Except…
Sheepdogs can look absolutely wild-eyed crazy! They are mentally and physically alert almost all the time. There is sometimes an anxious energy deeply embedded in a sheepdog. They can fly around in circles with amazing speed; they keep a careful and vigilant watch on anyone who might be wandering off. And that too can be an image of pastoral ministry, though not as beautiful. This image though immediately reveals why so many pastors stress out and burn out: they are trying to manage or protect or herd a flock.
The good news in this text is that the Good Shepherd takes care of the flock: gathers it, guides it, and guards it. And that’s a good word for the flock to hear, lest they think their pastor is a hired hand who can stand in for the Shepherd. That’s a good word for the flock to hear, lest they think their pastor needs to be the sheepdog and run around herding the flock. And this is also a good word for pastors to hear. There is indeed something about the image of shepherd that rings true to the pastoral vocation; and there is indeed something about the image of sheepdog that ring true as well. But at the end of the day, we are all sheep of God’s pasture, lambs of Christ’s own flock. Pastor and people together are God’s sheep following the Good Shepherd. And the Good Shepherd is fiercely determined to be the shepherd of the sheep! That is good news that is life-giving for pastor and people.