John 10:1-11; Jeremiah 23:1-4 / Ezekiel 34 1-31
As I said before the reading for today, one of the gifts of scripture is that it is rather like a diamond with many sides and facets. Last week I explored certain facets of the text. Today, I would like to look again at the same text and explore it perhaps from a slightly different angle.
In our passage, there are so many rich images, metaphors and figures of speech. It is interesting that the voice of Jesus in the passage actually uses the very phrase “figures of speech”. One could also use the term ‘archetypal’. When I use the term archetypal it refers to an image, metaphor or symbol that somehow gets to the root of our common human experience.
The first image we come across in the passage is in verse 1 is the image of the thief and the robber. Later on we read that the thief or robber comes to rob, kill and destroy. In verses 1-2 the thief or robber tries to deceive and short-cut the system for personal gain, climbing over fences instead of entering through the gate.
In the passage itself, Jesus is referring to the political and religious leaders of Israel. They are the one’s that Jesus is accusing of acting as robbers and thieves. Acting out of deceitful self-interest and personal gain. This accusation of acting deceitfully for purposes of personal gain is one that is not an uncommon accusation to be made against political leaders. It is perhaps less common to hear it being directed at religious leaders. Sometimes, we have overlook some of the self-serving tendencies in political leaders, especially if in the bigger picture we feel that they are acting in our best interest. But somehow religious leaders who act like thieves often in our minds seems less forgivable.
For those of us who are religious leaders, this passage comes as quite a challenge. In what ways do I act in self-interest, deceitfully climbing over fences, taking short-cuts instead of entering openly through the gate.
The truth is that it is not only political and religious leaders who have the ability to be thieves and robbers. It is true for all of us. There is a thief and a robber in each of our hearts that is ever so subtley willing to manipulate things to serve our own purposes and potential gain.
By contrast to the thieves and robbers in this passage, we see the image of the Good Shepherd. This theme of the Good Shepherd is one that goes back to the Old Testament in the writings of the prophets Ezekiel and Jeremiah. In Ezekiel 34, the prophet laments at the shepherds of Israel, the religious and political leaders, who have acted with no regard for the well-being of the sheep. They have only been concerned about themselves.
The prophet laments: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally….My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them.
Where religious and political leaders had become corrupt and self-serving, the hope expressed by Ezekiel and Jeremiah was that God himself would come to be the shepherd of the people of Israel.
The Good Shepherd is one who places the needs of the sheep above selfish ambition, self-aggrandisement and selfish glory. The Good Shepherd in our passage is one who generously and genuinely cares for the sheep under his watch. The Good Shepherd is described as one who knows the sheep by name. This is one who genuinely cares.
Thirdly, in our passage, we have the image of the gate through which the sheep can pass into safety and into green pasture. In our passage, the Good Shepherd is also the Gate for the Sheep, the doorway into health, safety and life.
Fourthly in our passage, we see the important image of listening. The primary job of the sheep in this passage is to listen. It is through listening to the One who cares for them and knows them by name that they are brought to safety, health and life. It is an interesting perspective on the spiritual life, that our primary job is to become deep listeners, learning to listen to the voice of wisdom in our hearts, which is none-other than the voice of the Good Shepherd. It is an interesting question to ask: If you had to listen deeply to the voice of wisdom in your life at this moment, what might the voice of wisdom be saying to you? What is the wise word that you are most needing to hear today? If we as a world had to be listening for the voice of wisdom today, what might we collectively as humanity be hearing at this time.
Lastly, there is the image of a life of fullness and abundance, a life that is so full that it overflows, overflowing with love and joy and kindness towards others. When we begin to listen deeply to the voice of wisdom, the voice of the Good Shepherd within our hearts rather then the voice of the thief or the robber, the promise is a life that overflows. That is one of the potential meanings of the Greek word used in our passage. Life in excess. What does one do when one has excess, the natural thing is to share it with others. A life that overflows towards others.
Last week I was sent a moving story told by a Jewish Rabbi that so beautifully captures many of the themes, metaphors and figures of speech in this passage, the themes of the thief, a good shepherd, a gate that leads to safety, a life that grows through listening, and becomes a life that overflows towards others… It goes like this:
A young man went over to an older man at a wedding. “Do you remember me?” he asked
"I don't remember you, who are you?" said the older man.
So he introduced himself.
“Ah! You were my student! Third grade, you were my student. Wow, I haven't seen you in so many years, how has your life been, what are you involved in?” said the older man.
“I’m a teacher!” he replied
“Wow! Just like me! What inspired you to become a teacher?”
“What inspired me to become a teacher was you!” the younger man replied.
"How did I inspire you to become a teacher?” the older man asked.
“I saw what an impact you had on me, and I realised what an impact I could have on children, and so I decided to go into education.”
“What kind of an impact did I have on you?” he asked.
“I‘ll remind you,” said the younger man, “but I’m sure you will remember the story.”
“There was this one day, one of my friends got himself a beautiful new wrist watch. His mother or father had bought it for him, and I had dreamt of such a watch and I couldn’t afford one. So I decided to steal his watch. He had it in his pocket. I took his watch. I stole it.
He came into the class and complained to you the teacher that somebody had just stolen his watch.
And so you made an announcement, “Whoever took this boys watch, would you please return it.”
I was too embarrassed and I didn't want to return it, so I didn't return it. So you locked the door, and you said, “I’m going to have to line everybody up, and empty their pockets, in order to get back the watch.”
And that's what you did. And I thought to myself, “This is going to be the most shameful moment of my life.”
And then you said, all you boys, line up at the wall. And I want everybody to have their eyes closed. Everybody’s eyes must be closed. And you went from pocket to pocket, and everybody’s eyes were closed, and then you came to my pocket, you found the watch, and you took it out, and you continued to go through everybody's pockets with their eyes closed. Then you said, “Ok, everybody can open their eyes.”
You gave the watch back to it’s owner and you never ever said a word to me, throughout the entire year. You never mentioned the story, you never mentioned the episode.
And when I thought to myself how you saved my dignity that day, instead of being stereotyped as a thief, and a liar, as a despicable child, you really saved my soul, you saved my dignity. And you never mentioned it to anybody else, not just to the owner, but not even to me. It happened, it was over, I understood the message, and when I looked at that, I saw it and said “Wow, this is what a teacher is, this is what an educator is, this is what I want to do with my life.” And therefore I want into education.
And the older man as he was listening said, “Wow! That’s amazing! That’s a really amazing story.”
And the younger man said, “But don’t you remember? Don’t you remember the story? When you see me, and when you hear my name, I’m sure you must remember the story that I stole the watch and what you did, and that you didn't want to embarrass me and you made everybody stand with their eyes closed, and that I’m that person.
And the older man replied, “Well, actually I don’t know, I wouldn't know that it was you.”
And he said, “But why not, it’s a pretty dramatic story.”
He said, “Because I also closed my eyes.”
Just a few questions to close: Who are the Good Shepherds who have made a difference in your life? Those who have been like a gate for you into safety and into good pasture. Who has inspired your life to be one that overflows with abundance and blessing towards others? If you had to listen to the voice of Wisdom, the Voice of the Good Shepherd within you heart today, what might that voice be saying to you in your life, in your particular circumstances today? Lastly, it is not just the voice of the thief and robber that lives inside us, by God’s grace there is also a good shepherd in each of us. When in your life have you had the joy and privilege of being a good shepherd for someone else like the older teacher in this story who made such an impact on the life and direction of his pupil.