The Good Shepherd
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
Scripture: 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” — John 10:11
The shepherd is one of the favorite and most familiar metaphors for our Lord. He is our shepherd and we are his flock. I remember a cousin of mine in England protesting at the image of the believers as sheep. She was worldly and urbane and thought more highly of the human race than history and experience warrant. An unbiased assessment of human behavior would compare us to wolves, as Thomas Hobbes did, rather than to sheep.
However, for every thriving predator there must be abundant prey and I think that there are on the whole more gullible sheep than cunning wolves per hundred thousand of human population. To continue the animal metaphor, there must have been more sheep than wolves during the run up to our current collapse of financial confidence, or how could Bernie Madoff, and the others like him who so far have got away, take in enough money to pay out to others without actually earning a penny? Sheep were fleeced to put wool on the backs of other sheep until their turn for fleecing came. Now we are all financially speaking sheep without a shepherd; nobody knows where the renewing pastures are so nobody can lead us there.
In the Gospel the good shepherd is a metaphor of the spiritual teacher, and the sign of his integrity is that he lays down his own life rather than take the lives of his sheep. The proof of a good shepherd is that he values his charges more than himself. Ask yourself how ready you are these days to be guided by the advice of others in the disposition of your money. So much evidence of incompetence, ignorance and fraud has already come to light that many of us find it hard to trust the trust companies and have faith in the fiduciaries. What might a comparable faith-restoring act be on the part of these fallen leaders, lay down their lives, forgo their bonuses?
This difficulty of trusting a profession after many after its reputation for integrity and expertise has been compromised is what causes our text to emphasize the goodness of the good shepherd. In those days, shepherds as a class had a bad reputation for integrity and expertise. In their hands your investment of a hundred sheep soon became ninety and then eighty and so on, and they told you to be grateful that it was not fifty because it was a very bad year for wolves. Meanwhile, they had lost your investment by carelessness or sold it clandestinely for their own gain. Jesus had to emphasize that he is the good not a bad shepherd, a straight arrow not a crook, and that you can trust him with your life, because he has already entrusted you with his, and laid it down for you. Jesus is the good shepherd because he laid down his life for the sheep, and there is nothing higher than that to show bona fides.
The historical Jesus would probably not have spoken in this way about his death; here we have an interpretation of the self-giving of Jesus, as a warrant and guarantee of his integrity as a leader, whom one might follow without danger to ones soul. On the contrary following this shepherd is life giving and life saving. Follow him because he can be trusted. He will not lead you astray or leave you lost in the wilderness of the world.
The longer I live the more I appreciate an honest person, because there are so few of them. Most leaders I hear, speak falsely, either because of ignorance or because of cowardice in the face of group think, or because they intentionally distort the truth in their own interest – to get elected, to be appointed, to be celebrated, to be thought wise, to have power. “When I speak, let no dog bark,” they say.
There are many politicians of this stripe, but I believe that one profession outshines all others in this regard, my profession of pastoring and preaching. There are more bad shepherds and blind guides among us clergy than in other professions. Anecdotal evidence will convince anyone that we cause more violence, hatred, bitterness, suffering, and mental illness than any single other profession. Let me not multiply examples but mention only two, incitement to violence and abuse of children. There are many, too many, bad shepherds, but thank God there is also a Good Shepherd, and it is him we must follow.
How shall we follow him? By paying attention to the Scriptures properly interpreted. In our Epistle lesson today we have such a proper interpretation, accurate, penetrating and profound. “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But if any one has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children let us not love in word or speech but in deed and in truth. (1 John 3: 16-18).” To follow the good shepherd is to love in deed and truth, by actually sharing what we have with those who have not.
How very simple it all is! Love by concrete action; share what you have with others. Love is first a deed, and only later is it love songs, loving words and good advice, although there are times when a love song or a good word can be the deed that makes the difference. John here refers to love as the law we are to obey. In this way he teaches us that the law of commandments and instructions takes second place to the law of giving and self-giving.
Giving and self-giving must remain together. I have heard street people say that they appreciate as much as the gift of money, the gift of eye contact, the recognition of the other person. I remember with regret an occasion when a colleague who was down and out came to me for money, but more importantly for emotional and spiritual support. I gave the easy thing, money, and withheld the precious thing, personal regard. I am sorry for that, but I wonder if I would act differently even now. Involvement with others, especially the so-called losers, is so costly. It is a bit like laying down your life for them.
Finally, this love of which John speaks comes from the Good Shepherd himself. We do not exercise our own love for others but make ourselves channels of his love, which is why John summarizes the command as: “And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another just as he commanded us.” Not, “Love, then believe,” but “Believe, then love.” Follow the good shepherd and along the way, as you walk with him, he will make you good and make you loving. “And this is the commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love his brother also (1 John 4:21).”