On Being the Good Shepherd

"The shepherd," Image by Joseph D'Mello via Flickr, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

What does “good” mean? An ambiguous adjective is a rather uncomfortable affair. One person’s “good” is not necessarily mine, right? It would have been a lot easier, perhaps simpler, if Jesus had just said, “I am the shepherd.”

I wish Jesus had used a different qualifier. I don’t really know what to do with good — and, it seems like the wrong one. Excellent? Outstanding? Amazing? These appear more appropriate for the Word made flesh than just “good.” Jesus should be better than good. “Good” is too nebulous. Too ill-defined. Too subject to interpretation.

But perhaps that is the point. We are left with the abstruse definition of “good.” So, we debate “good.” We turn it around, like a kaleidoscope, hoping that a different perspective might yield an alternative that is more to our liking. More understandable. More palatable. We are tempted to define “good” on our own terms, conveniently leaving Scripture behind because more often than not, we don’t really like the answer Scripture provides. And usually, left alone in Scripture, we try our hardest to escape Scripture.

At first glance, Jesus is the good shepherd because he lays down his life for his sheep. Of course, the obvious reference has to be the cross — ironically, our comfortable and compliant meaning of, “I lay down my life for my sheep.” But the cross is usually where we stop when it comes to what Jesus as the “good” shepherd might mean, and typical meanings about the cross that have little to do with the Fourth Gospel. A careful reading of this portion of John 10 takes us to Johannine places that might surprise us or to places we’d rather not go.

Because, there’s more. John 10 also directs us to John 18. Before Jesus goes to the cross, Jesus walks out of the garden and hands himself over to the police and the soldiers — no kiss. No betrayal. Because no one takes Jesus’ life. He lays it down of his own choice, his own accord. Which then puts us in the middle of the Farewell Discourse, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). And suddenly, as soon as we try to defer, “I lay down my life” to Jesus alone, Jesus reminds us that being the good shepherd is our calling. Damn it.

Maybe that’s why Jesus is the good shepherd and not the “awesome” shepherd, the “out-of-this-world” shepherd. Because at some point we have to accept the fact that we are asked to be the shepherd as well. If we had to follow in “extraordinary” footsteps, we would find every excuse possible, every explanation imaginable, to decline Jesus’ command. We’d repeatedly deny our identity, deny our discipleship, just like Peter. “Surely, you are one of his disciples, aren’t you? I AM not,” said Peter. But Jesus will not let him say no. “Simon Peter, do you love me? Tend my sheep. Feed my lambs. Shepherd my sheep.”

We find out, therefore, that Jesus as the good shepherd is just as much about us as it is about Jesus. And it is way more about us than being sheep — we can’t escape that easily. We’ve been so focused on ourselves as sheep, following the voice of the shepherd, being found by the shepherd, knowing pasture and being protected by the shepherd, that we’ve neglected our discipleship as shepherd. And in doing so, we’ve also neglected a particular verse that is as much an imperative as it is an indicative, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

When we remember that the Shepherd Discourse, as this passage is typically called, is Jesus’ interpretation of the healing of the man born blind, we quickly realize just how much Jesus needs us to be the shepherd. John 10:16 is the key, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold.” And so, Jesus finds the blind man after he has been cast out (9:35). Jesus finds the blind man when he’s sat his entire life, begging for anything that might keep him alive. Jesus finds the blind man in his darkness. “I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them in also.” Will we?

Will we find others not of this fold, a fold we protect with far too much diligence and denied discrimination? Will we find the beggars, those who lie outside our city gates, our country walls, desperate for our pastures, our refuge? Will we find those who sit in darkness and bring them into the presence of the light of the world? Or will we leave them out? Even cast them out? Pass them by as those Jesus will take care of, as if we are exempt from fulfilling the promise of John 3:16?

You see, “follow me” was never only about being sheep. All along, Jesus had in mind asking Peter, asking us, “Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go. Peter, follow me” (John 21:17-19). It’s time for us to be the good shepherd.