We’ve seen lots of paintings titled “The Good Shepherd.” Maybe even have one at home. Some have Jesus standing there in the midst of a flock of peaceful and secure-looking sheep. We remember those paintings. In the early church, there was hardly a catacomb in which a young shepherd is not painted on the wall or on an altar carrying a sheep across his shoulders. Then, in the late 19th century, the image of the Good Shepherd was subject to a makeover. Mostly, the flock had disappeared and a tall, but fuzzy-focus Jesus was standing there with a lamb cradled in his arms. The lamb now was not lost and yet no flock could be seen. Rather, it was a weak little thing. As one art critic put it, “little more than a prop and a toy.” So the question comes up again. Which good shepherd is Jesus and who are we his flock?
Still, today Jesus announces, “I am the good shepherd."
His sheep are being gathered into a flock known as “the children of God.” And he is their good shepherd. One problem does pop up on this “Good Shepherd Sunday.” What does it mean in St. John’s Gospel when the word “good” is used to describe Jesus? We’re really not sure what to make of it. One commentator called it “an ambiguous adjective.” I mean, a lot of us could be called “good”—“good church goers,” “good Catholics,” “good people” at least. Given that Jesus is the eternal Word made flesh, perhaps more robust terms would clear up the ambiguity. Would “Outstanding” or “Awesome” would serve us better in these days? (Although “Superhero Shepherd” may be overdoing it a bit!) The Greek word translated "good" can also mean “model” or “ideal.” Maybe they get closer to what we need.
But Jesus doesn’t end his “parable” with this self-descriptor. He adds, “and I will lay down my life for the sheep.” So now another problem. What kind of shepherd promises to get killed in this shepherding business? Not a very good one, the world might think. What will happen to the sheep now? But here is precisely what is “good” about shepherd Jesus. All kinds of shepherds in Israel had precisely avoided suffering for God’s covenant people. But this shepherd Messiah will lay down his life for the sheep. Notice that in John’s Gospel, Jesus is not simply taken as a passive victim to his suffering and death. He lays down his life. “No one takes it from me,” this good shepherd proclaims. “I lay it down of my own accord.” Jesus is the One voluntary sacrifice, with power to lay down his life “and power to take it up again” (10:18). So instead of a soft fuzzy Jesus holding a pet lamb, Orthodox Christians have a very Johannine way of speaking of this laying down and taking up of Jesus’ life. In a Russian Orthodox icon of the Crucifixion, this Jesus is lifted up on the Cross and there are unavoidable signs that this is also a lifting up to glory. His arms outstretched as to embrace the world, with angels hovering above him, and with old Adam’s skull seen under the surface of the hill. The New Adam lifted up, on a Cross and in glory. So Jesus is, indeed, the good shepherd. His cross-stretched and risen arms embrace the flock,...and the entire world. The ideal shepherd, the One who lays down his life and takes it up once more.
Now comes the contrasting role—not a “thief” this time, but a “hired one.” This hired hand is definitely a threat to the flock, but not necessarily by direct abuse and violence. No, the issue here is that such a hireling really doesn’t care for the sheep. Some threat comes along and, Wham!, those hired hands are gone—fleeing away. Or else, they’ve gone and joined the wolves. Those are the worst.
Herod, very much becomes a wolverine, joining with the Romans in all kinds of cozy dealings. In the 1930s, the German Christian bishops swallowed that “Leader Principle” talk and went over to Adolf Hitler. In our own days, the Prosperity Gospel preachers ignore the poor and live out a “Superhero-shepherd” life style, business jets and all.
On the other hand, some of our modern-day hirelings simply exit stage left when troubles peek over the horizon. They become “runaways” from Jesus. In Tennessee Williams’ play, “Night of the Iguana,” The Rev. T. Lawrence Shannon, a defrocked Episcopal priest, always appears to be just about ready to leave—the church, to leave sleazy Blakes Tours that employs him as a tour bus driver, and to leave his life. His only redemption is to accept that he is loved, unconditionally, and forgiven. He has only two choices, to remain that fleeing “hired hand” or to accept that he is loved, that he is a child of God.
Either way, by the hired ones’ joining with the wolves or by their just fleeing, the sheep are open to attack, to abuse and violence. And in the wake of such attacks, have you noticed that the “survivors” themselves can decide to flee, to leave the flock. In the wake of such attacks, some remain perennially vigilant for the next imagined threat, and deep joy is lost. Others, of course, just soldier on, building up some “we”--“they” kind of world, protecting themselves from those to whom they are sent by Christ. So there are these hired ones. You know, the ones ready and set to flee. The sheep do know about life with such hirelings. It is an anxious and scary kind of place to call home.
Now we hear our Lord once again. “I am the good shepherd,” he insists. We are his sheep, the flock of his own choosing and tending. And Jesus adds, “I know mine and they know me.” The kind of knowledge our good shepherd is speaking about is not that conferred by a degree or achieved by only a few “top tier” minds. It is deeply biblical this form of knowing, such as family and friends can share--intimate, abiding and deeply caring ties. The “model” of this relationship, Jesus adds, is that between himself and the Father. “The Father knows me and I know the Father.” The enduring intimacy of this “Divine Dance”[ii] between the Father and the Son is at the heart of all being, all life, all our soul and body.
At the Creed, the language of the Council of Nicaea spoke of Christ as being “consubstantial with the Father.” Now some insight into this heavy theological term is revealed right here in the midst of Good Shepherd Sunday-- “the Father knows me and I know the Father.” Or, as we turn the phrase, another meaning is disclosed. When we feast on Christ, his Body and Blood, we know the Good Shepherd and we know the Father. And turn it yet again, as we Feast on the Lamb of God who is also our Good Shepherd, we know each other as beloved sheep of his fold. And lest we just relax into the security of our knowledge of our own sheep-herd, Jesus adds a slightly unsettling note. “I have other sheep,” he announces, “who are not of this fold.” The Good Shepherd will also lead them and in the fullness of time, “there will be one flock, one shepherd.” “I am,” we hear our Lord’s words: “the Vine,” “light of the world,” “Resurrection and Life,” and now, “Good Shepherd.”
In reflection, there was a first time that Jesus spoke about this quality of being good. That story begins, “There was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples were also invited to the wedding.” And when the wine had run out and Jesus had directed the attendants to fill the six stone water jars to the brim and the steward of the wedding feast was served the water now become wine, he exclaimed, “you have kept the good wine until now.” That adjective is no longer ambiguous in such a feast of sacramental abundance. No need to flee. Only welcome is here, holy flock of Christ. The Good Shepherd beckons us to enjoy these green pastures and to join in the Banquet of the Lamb. And then, of course, to bear witness to our Good Shepherd in the world.
 “The Good Shepherd,” Ad Imaginem Dei, accessed April 16, 2021, http://imaginemdei.blogspot.com/2011/05/good-shepherd-sunday-fourth-sunday-of.html. [ii] See: Richard Rohr, The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation (New Kensington, PA: Whitaker House, 2016).