One problem with the many references to sheep in the Bible is that so few of us have any real contact with these animals. The metaphor is simply lost on us. What does it mean to be compared to sheep? The little we’ve heard or read about them—that they’re not particularly bright—does not endear us to the metaphor.
But here’s the thing about Good Shepherd Sunday: it’s not about sheep at all. It is about a shepherd—the “Good Shepherd”—but even that designation is charged with meanings that can be lost on us.
“I am the good shepherd,” says Jesus. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).
The life of a shepherd was anything but dreamy or picturesque. Taking care of sheep was dangerous, difficult, tedious work. Shepherds were, as one commentator has said, “rough around the edges, spending time in the fields rather than in polite society. For Jesus to say, ‘I am the good shepherd,’would have been an affront to the religious elite. The claim had an edge to it. A modern-day equivalent might be for Jesus to say, ‘I am the good migrant worker.’”*
So John is doing in his gospel something that Luke does in his. Recall the Good Samaritan: Jesus tells a parable about a man mugged in the street and left for dead. Two members of Israel’s spiritual elite—a priest and a Levite—pass him by and hurry on their way. But a Samaritan—considered unclean and morally suspect—binds the man’s wounds, pays for his care, helps restore him to health.
Jesus makes a Samaritan the hero of the story, something that would have scandalized his hearers. His basic message is not: be kind; help others (which is what we’ve reduced the parable to). His message is this: the Kingdom comes in surprising ways, through surprising people, through a God who turns our expectations and our prejudices upside down.
The Good Samaritan. The Good Shepherd. Those who are lowly, dubious, suspicious, contemptuous; those discounted, counted out: pay attention to these—God is probably at work in their midst. The Good Samaritan gives of himself fully to save a stranger. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
But what about what the Good Shepherd says? “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice” (John 10:16). This surely refers to the “calling of the Gentiles”; their grafting into Israel. But we also have to ask what it means for our time.
We tend to like fences and tidy borders, but the Good Shepherd does not seem interested in the kind of boundaries that keep the sheep separated from one another.
There’s a story told about Robert Coles going to interview Dorothy Day in 1952. Upon entering her “house of hospitality” he found her talking with a woman who was obviously very drunk. Eventually Dorothy got up and came over to Coles: “Are you waiting to speak to one of us?” The troubled, intoxicated woman was not the other, the outsider, “one of them”; she was not an object of Dorothy Day’s charity. Rather, Day was one with this woman in the charity of Christ.**
“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also.”
It’s the First Reading that extends the message of John chapter 10 to its logical end, giving us its full implication for work and witness in the world: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us–and we ought to lay down our lives for one another . . . Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (1 John 3:16, 18).
The good Samaritan loved in truth and action. Dorothy Day loved in truth and action. And the love they embodied was not in and of themselves, summoned by their own strength or will, but was available to them because “they listened to [his] voice” (John 10:16).
For those who gather at the Lord’s Table this Sunday, we’ll be reminded that the Good Shepherd is also the sacrificial lamb–that in laying down his life he takes it up again (John 10:17). And when we participate in that dying and rising, when we eat the bread and drink the cup of salvation, “we know that he abides in us” (1 John 3:24). And this is pure gift.
Finally, we’ll recite Psalm 23 this week–not as part of a funeral liturgy but, for many, in the context of the Eucharist. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies” (23:5). We’re back to Jesus’ insistence that he brings all into the fold–friend, stranger, outcast, enemy–and that when we feast at his table, barriers are broken, divisions are overcome, unity is enacted (“there will be one flock, one shepherd”). And in tasting this goodness we discover that we have everything we need: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”