The good shepherd image that Jesus uses in John 10:11-18 has got me thinking. Once again, like any of the agricultural metaphors that Our Lord uses makes sense on the immediate level, but when you scratch a bit, if doesn’t…
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immediately places us in the position of looking for the contrast- if there is a good shepherd, then what of the bad shepherd or the not so good shepherd. Jesus gives us the comparison himself. The good shepherd and the hired shepherd. All well and good. The hired shepherd has no personal investment in the sheep except as wage opportunity. Again, this is something we can relate to- we all know the problem of the wage earner who has no personal involvement. And we could easily nod our heads in broad agreement.
But once again, when Our Lord uses these agricultural images, he doesn’t get the image right! In most cases, especially here in Africa, the shepherd is not so much a hired man, but part of the family- generally the youngest boy-child or the relative who might not be the brightest. So if we scratch at the image, there is a problem. Even in the time of Jesus, this would probably have been the case.
So we don’t have a normal situation here, in the sense that the issue here is not of shepherding but of personal investment or ownership. The Good Shepherd is personally invested in the sheep and knows their value.
In other parts of the Gospels where Jesus speaks of sheep, such as the parable of the lost sheep, I can see this sense of investment in the sheep that doesn’t really make sense- why chase after one sheep if you have 99 others. Stick with the 99!
This sense of investment is developed further with the introduction of the threat to the sheep. A wolf on the prowl. It would make sense to scratch here again. Generally, the presence of a shepherd would be enough to deter the ‘lone wolf’, but if the wolf was determined, the law of averages kicks in again. If there is a wolf, then sacrifice one sheep and keep the rest safe. Certainly, if the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it, the shepherd as owner or hired man, would probably not put his life on the line as his life would be more valuable than the sheep or the whole flock.
The flock would be scattered and more vulnerable to attack, but the shepherd would be alive. Now we begin to see another threat. The process of attack by a pack of wolves is (and here I can only speak of the experience gained by watching tv or by looking at those animals that hunt in packs in Africa) to first scatter the sheep and then to pick them off one by one. So the presence and preemptive action of the Shepherd counts.
Scratch further. The image isn’t really working on a realistic level. But on another level the image is working. The value of the sheep and the bravery of the shepherd (a line from the Collect prayer today) reminds me of a different sacrifice- made by Our Lord on the cross.
Here the image turns to the willingness of the Shepherd to lay down his life for the sheep. This shepherd does this because of the personal connection that he has with the father who is the owner of the sheep and with whom the shepherd has intimate communion. Here the actions of the brave shepherd make sense. He makes the effort for he knows the Father’s investment and how the Father values the sheep and this relationship of value prompts his choice to lay down his life for both the sake of the sheep and the Owner of the sheep.
Laying his life down then becomes a choice that is protective and value driven. The Good Shepherd makes the choice motivated by both the intimacy he has with the Father who owns the sheep and the sheep that are so valuable to the father.
On face- and familiarity value, this image, makes intuitive sense only if we move if from a purely agricultural sense and allow the deeper story to emerge.
For me, this deeper story is about a choice for the value of the person. Any choice made out of value is a choice made like Jesus did.
Now the image makes more sense – and I can see how this text is chosen as an illustrative one for the process of discerning our Vocation or Calling from God – all done from a deep unity of value.