The gospel for April 25th (John 10: 11-18) takes place long before the events of Easter Sunday, which has been the setting for gospels of the past four weeks, but it includes a section in which Jesus speaks of his death and resurrection, repeatedly, and reminds us that he foresaw both.
The gospel is part of a more extended metaphor about sheep, sheepfolds and shepherds. Jesus is addressing an audience who saw sheep routinely and who understood the role of a shepherd as well as the ones who were “good” … reliable, courageous individuals who do not run away when a wolf threatened their sheep and cared for them in a way that the sheep recognize.
The gospel opens with Jesus saying, I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.
In the eight verses of this gospel, Jesus repeats three times that, as the good shepherd he lays down his life. While it doesn’t directly refer to David the gospel conjures him up, before he was king, when he defended his sheep by killing a lion and a bear. (This was the basis for him arguing to King Saul that he could defeat Goliath. (1 Sam17:34-37)) Both contemporary experience of sheep as well as a vivid scriptural allusion to David’s courage for the sake of his flock would have resonated in Jesus’ words.
As 21st century urban dwellers, however, the shepherd metaphor lacks the immediacy of personal experience. Perhaps if we substituted a “daycare worker” for “shepherd”, the image would come into better focus. Toddlers are as vulnerable as sheep. They can wander off or not pay attention to potential dangers. Parents trust the daycare workers to be as watchful and caring as they are when the little ones are with them. Whether the children are aware of it or not, they live and play in an setting of care.
The unspoken contract that parents make is that the daycare workers would protect their charges with their own lives…as the parents would.
The gospel continues, I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.
Close friends and family members have subtle “signatures” … ways of walking or small gestures that can identify them even at a distance or if they have a hat and mask on. They may wrinkle their brow in a certain manner or look down or pause in response to a question or comment in a style that signals to those who know them that they are reflecting. While most of the world wouldn’t notice, family members or close friends do. “Knowing” one another this way is a proxy for love.
Jesus was describing this kind of familiarity between himself and his followers and comparing it to the intimacy between himself and his father.
Moreover, this relationship between him and his followers was so strong that Jesus said again that he would lay down his life for his friends…and others not yet known to the disciples.
I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. This must have come as a mild surprise to Jesus’ disciples, who were mostly Galileans and probably an insular group. The further afield Jesus’ mission took him, and them, the more awkward and fearful they became. Their trip to the land of the Geraseneson east of the Sea of Galilee (Mark 5, Luke 8) and their encounter with the possessed man likely confirmed their fear of foreigners. We get a different sense of this in the later difficulties they had in integrating the person and style of Paul. (Galatians 2)
They likely enjoyed their close relationships with Jesus and may have feared “watering down” the contact by adding other sheep that do not belong, even as they calculated that, as his first friends, they would have a place of honour.
Then Jesus explained his metaphor of the shepherd, with a repetition of laying down his life. For this reason, the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”
This time however, Jesus said, I lay down my life in order to take it up again. In other resurrection accounts the unnamed Father raised Jesus from death. In Matthew 28:6 the angel told Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said…as though someone else had raised him. Similarly, in Luke 9:22, Jesus tells his disciples, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
Here, Jesus says that he has the power to lay it down and to take it up again. He is the agent of his own rising from the dead. While the different accounts seem to confuse who is acting, the “contradiction” emphasizes that Jesus and the Father act as one, as the Father knows me and I know the Father. Later, in John 14:10 Jesus would repeat and re-emphasize this closeness when he said, I am in the Father and the Father is in me. The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. In John 17:21-22 Jesus prays for his disciples, “…that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one,
Sheep, shepherds, dying, rising….the mix of metaphor and prophecy may have confused Jesus’ disciples. In all likelihood, it would only be later, animated by the Holy Spirit, that they would recall his repeated teaching about his death and resurrection that the disciples would know, fully, that Jesus and the Father were one.
• Jesus repeated I lay down my life three times in this gospel. In John’s gospel of Easter Sunday he repeated Peace with you three times. Repetition is a form of emphasis: a way of saying, ‘this is important’. Take the time to consider about what or whom you would say, I lay down my life.
• Aside from the metaphors of shepherd or daycare worker, can you think of another metaphor for someone who is charged with similar duties, and whose work would be Christlike? An emergency room doctor or nurse? A police officer?
• Do you think Jesus’ talk about laying down his life confused his disciples?