by Robert Brow (www.brow.on.ca)
When Jesus calls himself the Shepherd he is not treating us a bunch of stupid sheep. Nor does he use us to collect wool off our back. As with all metaphors, we have to note some ways in which the metaphor is like the reality. And we get it wrong if we fail to see the differences.
Here Jesus is contrasting the way a shepherd minds sheep with the work of a hired hand. The old translation used to be "hireling," which could suggest a worker who cares only for the money. Many hired hands do a very responsible job, but however good they are they do not have the heart of a shepherd.
Today is Mother's Day, and if Jesus was telling the story in our situation he would contrast the heart of a mother with the work, however good, of a babysitter who is paid to mind the kids. Here are three contrasts.
Caring - A shepherd cares for the flock. And that means day and night in lambing time. There is the constant concern to find pasture, water, shade, watching to protect from wolves and other predators. As a minister I try to work hard at preaching, hospital visits, communion with our shut-ins, and I would like to be available at any time. But often I am not there when people need me. I could be attending some committee, or dealing with an emergency in my own family, or away on holiday. My task is to get you used to talking to the Good Shepherd. When you wake up at night terrified, Jesus is there right by your bedside. I won't be around when you are harassed and miserable at work, but He will there to take you through the hassles you face. When you feel lonely, abandoned, growing frail in old age, I might be able to visit you on occasion but it is the Good Shepherd who will always be there to comfort you. As David wrote three thousand years go in his Psalm, "He restores my soul . . . you are with me; your rod and your staff they comfort me" (Psalm 23:3-4).
Knowing and Being Known - As your minister I know bits and pieces about you. When I have visited, you have seen me take out my bunch of 3 x 5 index cards. I have your name and address, phone number and perhaps your e-mail address. I may add the names and locations of your children, perhaps your war service, occupation, or special interests. But that is only a tiny fraction of who you are and are really concerned about. There is much that is private. I am only the hired hand. There might be some things you would be ashamed for me to know. But Jesus, the Good Shepherd knows you fully. We began our communion service with the prayer "to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hidden. Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit." He knows you through and through, is not embarrassed or condemning, and He offers the Holy Spirit to take you in hand and fill you with the perfect love of heaven.
But the Shepherd not only knows you, but wants you to know Him. "I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me" (John 10:14). As his under shepherd, you do not know me very deeply. You might not like some of the things you might find out about me. But Jesus longs to be known. Sheep have some knowledge of their shepherd, but only as much as sheep can know. But we are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27), which at least means we are able to communicate with and understand the heart of God. This is why one of the joys of Bible study and prayer is that every day we discover more and more about the eternal Son of God
Life Giving - The Greek word for lay down is tithymi, and in our text it comes four times in the present continuous tense. It could be translated "the good shepherd keeps laying down his life for the sheep" (John 15:11), and "I keep laying down my life for the sheep" (John 10:15, see 10:17, 18). It is very costly for a shepherd who undertakes to care for sheep, and it is very costly for a mother caring for little children. It is not just one act of laying down one's life.
A pastor or minister who serves as an under-shepherd should expect to be hurt and walked on from time to time. People easily misunderstand, ascribe motives, say harsh things. A necessary part of the task is being willing to absorb and defuse the hurt in one's own body. I have had an easy time here at St. John's church, but then I am only here as your interim for five months.
Throughout my time at St. James' Church for eleven years there was a fellow we all loved and cared for, but he would get into a towering rage if he was crossed, or we didn't give an announcement he thought was important. One day he took a swing at me, I ducked, and his hand went right through one of the windows in the side door. He went to emergency, dripping blood all the way. But the last straw was when he flattened me in the center aisle in full view of the congregation at the end of a service. If I had fallen on either side my neck would have been broken on one of the pews. The wardens had to get a restraining order from the police to prevent him coming on church property.
Jesus, our shepherd, is willing to lay down his life again and again as we hurt him, insult him, hinder the work of his church, treat others badly, deny him like Peter. When he was hanging on the cross he said about the soldiers and disciples and mockers "Father, forgive them. They don't know what they are doing." And he does that for every single person in the world. We had to exclude that troubled man from St. James' Church because we couldn't cope with his behavior. But Jesus never excludes anyone from his flock. Which is why the Father is impressed. "For this reason the Father loves me, because I keep laying down my life in order to take it up again" (John 10:17).
That is why our invitation to communion begins "Dear friends in Christ,
God is steadfast in love and infinite in mercy; he welcomes sinners and
invites them to his table" (Canadian Book of Alternative Services, page
191). And that includes you. "However badly you may have hurt him, he still
loves you totally." It also includes others who are as imperfect as you
are. Having been hurt so badly, the good shepherd is still willing to include
others. "I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring
them also" (John 10:16).