The Good Shepherd

You can listen to this reflection here. Sunday’s gospel reading is here

Every year on the fourth Sunday of Easter our lectionary delivers up a section of Jesus’ “Good Shepherd” discourse from the Gospel of John. This set of teachings is sandwiched between Jesus’ healing of a man blind from birth (John 9), which sharpened the ire of the religious authorities with whom he’d already been tussling, and his raising of Lazarus (John 11), which caused those leaders to seek his execution. So this Good Shepherd passage is far from cuddly or comforting – it crackles with the growing danger in which Jesus finds himself, speaking of death and sacrifice, of negligent shepherds and thieves.

Before we look at all that, though, let’s note how subversive it was for Jesus to compare himself to a shepherd in the first place. The impact of this image may be lost on us, as we tend to think of shepherds as earthy, pan-pipe playing rustics tending the land and their cute little flocks. In Jesus’ time, though, shepherds were considered crude and base ruffians, unkempt, unwashed, often dishonest and generally suspect. That’s why our Christmas story of angels appearing to shepherds in their fields is so astonishing – how could such low-lifes would be the first to hear of Christ’s birth?

Yet, as we know, Jesus made a practice of consorting with people considered by “respectable” folk to be the dregs of society. He was often in trouble for dining with tax collectors and prostitutes, honoring lepers and the ritually impure with his company and healing. Here he claims a demeaned profession as his own. To say “I am the good shepherd” is to assert that there can be such a thing as a good shepherd. In explaining what distinguishes a good shepherd from a bad one, he manages once more to skewer the ruling elite.

There is yet a deeper level of affront to those leaders in this statement: Jesus’ use of “I am” in making this claim. This could not but echo for his hearers the name God gives when Moses demands his name: “I am that I am,” a statement of pure being. Each of the “I am” sayings recorded in John’s Gospel begins in Greek with “Ego eimi…” However, the “I” (“ego”) is implied in the word “eimi,” or “am.” Putting “ego” before it is redundant, rendering it “I I am” – thus amplifying the “I am” so that the comparison to God’s name is inescapable.

In these few words, Jesus manages to offend the powerful on several levels, and to signal to those on the margins of society the Good News of what God is up to. When he says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,” he redeems the role of shepherd and claims it for himself. And he frames in advance his suffering and death as a redemptive sacrifice, alerting his hearers that this Good Shepherd will be called upon to lay down his life for the sheep he loves.

This Shepherd of ours is a fierce and vigilant warrior – and he is still on watch over us, leading us out, to good pasture, and in, to the safety of the fold; guarding us from forces of evil that would prey on us or try to lead us astray. We still have the freedom to wander, but as we choose to stay near, what joy and power will be ours.

© Kate Heichler, 2024. To receive Water Daily by email each morning, subscribe hereHere are the bible readings for next Sunday. Water Daily is also a podcast – subscribe to it here on Apple, Spotify or your favorite podcast platform.

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