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Easter 4B Gospel

John 10:11-18

In the very last “housekeeping” conversation Jesus has with Peter in John’s gospel chapter 21, the Good Shepherd implores The Rock, “If you love me, feed my sheep.” The weekly gospel passage from John 10:1-13 Jesus delivers two of the seven “I Am” statements, both having to do with care for sheep. Jesus is casting a vision of leadership in the church that looks more like the humble shepherds who first heard the announcement of his birth than the emperors, kings and rulers who ultimately put him to death.

Jesus’ vision of leadership is perfectly continuous with the depiction of leadership God had been calling forth from the people of Israel throughout the story of salvation. His words about the gate for the sheep and the Good Shepherd also a timely response to the context found in the healing that takes place in John chapter 9. This vision of leadership offers a sharp critique of the Pharisees in his company and for the church today. Ultimately, his words are good news for those who respond to the voice of the Good Shepherd.

History of leadership

When the people of Israel first ask for a King, God warns them that kings will take their sons for the armies, their daughters for their servants, and their best crops from their tables. God says, to Samuel, “it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king (1 Sam 8:7b).”

When Samuel anoints Saul as the first king of Israel God tells Samuel that this is the man who will, “rule over my people.” And rule he did. However, his leadership was not in line with God’s leading. When Samuel anoints David as King – the shepherd boy who is a man after God’s own heart – the word of the Lord is different. The Lord says of David, “It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel (2 Sam 5:2).” In turn, David confesses, “The Lord is my Shepherd (Psalm 23).” The leader who finds favor in the eyes of the Lord is modeled after the lowly shepherd and not after the rulers and kings of the surrounding world powers.

The history of kings after David is filled with scandal and apostasy as well as some brief moments of surprising faithfulness. Yet, the words of the prophets are filled with poignant charges against the leaders of Israel. Most notably among these chargers is the 34th chapter of Ezekiel. The Lord commands Ezekiel to “prophesy against the shepherds of Israel.” This chapter reveals the wide spread understanding within the faith tradition of Israel that leaders ought to be shepherds of the people. But as Ezekiel mercilessly outlines in chapter 34, the leaders of late have been more interested in their own wellbeing than feeding or caring for the sheep. In a message that shares the same rhetorical power of the prophet who calls bones back to life, the Lord tells Ezekiel to warn the leaders of Israel: “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice (Ez 34:15-16).”

The Lord has called forth leaders who will shepherd the people of God and who will concern themselves with feeding more than leading. But in the absence of such shepherds, the work of leading the people of God will be hired out no longer. When Jesus makes his powerful statements about being the gate and the Good Shepherd, he is making a bold indictment against the current leadership of Israel in the prophetic tradition of Ezekiel. His audience, noted in John 10:1, is none other than the Pharisees who have just proven to be cut from the same cloth of the false shepherds condemned to be “fed with justice.”

The man born blind

If the story of the kings of Israel set the historical backdrop for John chapter 10, the healing of the man born blind sets the immediate backdrop. In John chapter 9 Jesus encounters a man born blind, puts mud on his eyes and orders the man to wash in the pool of Siloam where he is healed. This very public miracle becomes an opportunity for Jesus to dismantle a popular misconception that afflictions like blindness were God’s punishment for sin. In doing so he presents both a challenge and a threat to the Pharisees who launch an investigation into this man’s healing. The man’s parents are brought in to give testimony before the Pharisees and the man himself is questioned multiple times. When the healed man refuses to deny that Jesus restored his sight – and even suggests that the investigators may want to become Jesus’ disciples – the leaders of Jerusalem have had enough and cast the man out.

Once the man is thrown out (either out of the city or out of the temple or teaching area – significance in own his marginalization) Jesus seeks him, finds him, and reveals himself to be the “Son of Man”. Once again Pharisees seem to be present and find offense at Jesus’ teaching.

When Jesus speaks these words in chapter 10 about gates, thieves, robbers, sheep and the Good Shepherd, his audience seems to be disgruntled Pharisees and the man whom they cast out of their company after the investigation went awry. No one in the crowd that day could miss the implication that these Pharisees are acting like the thieves and robbers who can only sneak over the fence to get at the sheep. Thieves and robbers are those who treat the people of God as though they are good for nothing but fleece and meat. The implication is that the Pharisees care more for their own authority than for the people they are meant to serve.

The Gate and the Good Shepherd

The gatekeepers of the community held extraordinary power in Jesus’ day. Any persons deemed unclean, unfit, unworthy could be cast out of the temple or the city which meant the loss of not only social and familial connection but the loss of livelihood, the ability to work and earn wages. Jesus’ metaphor reveals that keeping the sheep penned in serves the interest of the thief and not the shepherd. The thief only wants to come and collect fleece and meat and be on her way with no plans to lead the sheep out to find still water and green pasture. The shepherd, on the other hand, uses the pen only for safety, protection from wolves at night or to guard against wandering. But the shepherd is the one who leads the sheep out to find pasture and water and then gathers them back in again. Before Jesus claims to be the Good Shepherd he claims to be the gate for the sheep. He is not the gatekeeper, rather, he is the point of entry for all those who seek salvation.

Fred Craddocks’s book on preaching the gospel of John from 1971 compares the thieves and robbers to unscrupulous traveling evangelists or charismatic TV preachers who convince little old ladies to sign over their social security checks for the promise of a blessing. These characters certainly fit the profile of a thief and robber. But the traveling evangelist and TV preacher with unmovable hair are more familiar to churches 50 years in our past. It is tempting to imagine such vandals, consider our contextual mission accomplished and move on. But today are a new generation of thieves and robbers we ought not let off the exegetical hook: authors and bloggers who depend on the likes and retweets of the people of God to build their profile, church administrators who protect their position and paycheck by avoiding hard conversations, a “Christian” music industry that makes idols of artists with catchy tunes about love for a Jesus who hardly looks like the radical savior boldly indicting the Pharisees on their door step. Meanwhile, there are so many sheep (this is meant lovingly and not pejoratively) who are buying books, reposting articles, downloading music, and voting for church leaders, because they trust that their shepherds care about feeding the sheep more than building a name, brand, legacy, or 401K.

Jesus tells us that his sheep know his voice and will not answer to the call of the thief who comes to steal and kill and destroy. This passage ought to convict every preacher who dares to tune the ears of the sheep for the voice of the Shepherd. You have been given the task to bring a word to the people of God, and sometimes those words are convicting. There are many voices in the public sphere who gain a following with harsh words for the church. But for the shepherds who prepare a word this week, may I remind you, if you don’t love the church you will have nothing to say to her, because she will not recognize your voice, it will sound like a thief or a robber. And if you do not serve her, you cannot lead her, because she will only follow the shepherd who comes through the gate, through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

One comment in Craddock’s book from 1971 is as true today as it ever was: “the Shepherd is the door to shepherding, and the flock that knows the shepherd can recognize his voice in the teaching, preaching and pastoring of those who are shepherds.” Anyone who wants to be a shepherd leader of the people of God must come through the gate. Only those who will pass through the gate will be shepherds, and anyone who tries to get at the people of God from any other way are thieves and robbers.

Perhaps the best news of this passage is the fulfillment of Ezekiel’s prophecy. When Jesus goes out to the man born blind, like a shepherd seeking after a lost sheep, we can see and bear witness that the Good Shepherd has come. No longer will the feeding and leading of the people of God be left to hired hands. Our God has come to seek the lost, bring back the strayed, bind up the injured, and strengthen the weak.

Pastor, as you prepare to bring this text for the people of God remember, the work of pastoral ministry cannot be hired out to the latest conference, bestselling author or most retweeted blog. When you accepted the call to ministry you stood in the place of Peter, hearing the words of Jesus, “If you love me, feed my sheep.” May your feeding this week be so full of the love of God that all who hear may find green pasture and still waters.

Shawna Songer Gaine

About the Contributor

Chaplain, Trevecca Nazarene University


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