One of the highlights of my time as a university student was a tour to Israel, Oberammergau and Wesley’s England with my parents and group from my home church. It was a fascinating and frustrating time that left a deep mark on my life. One of the lighter features of the journey, though, was an elderly lady who had been to Israel before, and who fancied herself as an unofficial tour guide. Many were the times that, as the bus stopped and we all clambered off, she would instruct us, “Follow me! I know the way!” Usually we all ignored her and followed the official guide, and she would turn and tag along, telling us all about the place were visiting. One time, however, a couple of my young friends and I thought it would be fun to separate ourselves from the group and follow her. But, we only did this once, because we ended up getting very lost, and had to struggle to find our way back to our parents.
One of the universal human struggles has been that of leadership. Good leaders bring life and peace and joy to a people, but they can be hard to come by. Poor leaders are rather like this elderly lady, inviting people to follow them when they have no clue where they are going. And then there are the leaders who strive to get into power for no other reason than the opportunity to control, use and fleece those under their (lack of) care.
John, in his Gospel, has a very clear purpose. He seeks to reveal Jesus as the incarnate God, the “sent one” who has come to reveal God, so that those who see and believe may find life through him. In a world with no shortage of leaders who bring pain and suffering to their followers, Jesus is presented as the real thing – the leader who loves his followers, and really does bring life to them. More than this, John seeks to show that those that follow Jesus are, themselves, called to lead and to care for those who follow them. Which is why this week’s passage from John 10:1-10 is so significant.
It’s a little unfortunate that this section has been separated out from the narrative before it, and the ongoing discourse which follows it, because it does not stand alone. The preceding section has already been explored this year. John 9, the dramatic story of the man born blind who is healed by Jesus on the Sabbath, was the set reading for Lent 4. It ends with the blind man being thrown out of the synagogue, and Jesus revealing himself to the man, who responds in faith and worship (a little prophetic of Thomas’ confession at the end of John’s Gospel which we read a couple of weeks ago). Then, after announcing that he had come to bring judgement, offering sight to the blind and showing those that think they have sight that they do not, Jesus is challenged by some Pharisees who ask if he is telling them they are blind. Jesus’ response begins the discourse which continues, uninterrupted, into John 10 – “If you were blind, you wouldn’t be guilty, but you remain guilty because you claim you can see.”
This connection between John 9 and 10 creates some difficulties for scholars. The story of the blind man appears to be part of the sequence, which begins in Chapter 7, at the time of the Feast of Tabernacles (See 7:1-10). 10:22 seems to indicate, though, that the words about the Shepherd and the sheep were spoken at the Feast of Dedication (or Hannukah) a few months later. Hannukah was a festival in which the confrontation of true leaders with corrupt ones in the time of the Maccabees (about 160 BC) was commemorated, and when the passage about good and bad shepherds from Ezekiel 34 was customarily read. It would make sense, then, for Jesus to be saying things about shepherds, sheep and gates with this as the setting. However, there can be no doubt that John wants to keep the connection with the story of the blind man going, since the question of the people in John 10:21 (“Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?”) is clearly a reference back to this incident. It seems like it would be best not to try to get too literal about the timing, nor indeed about the metaphors Jesus uses in this passage, and rather to focus on what John is trying to say.
In the story of the blind man, the Pharisees – the religious leaders – were clearly blind. They failed to recognise what God was doing, they threw an innocent man out of the synagogue, and they were leading God’s people astray. It is possible that Jesus was being quite gentle with them, refusing to see their actions as wilfully destructive, and simply reflecting on the blindness which they did not know they have. In John 10, though, the message gets stronger, even as the metaphors get mixed.
To begin with Jesus is the shepherd who enters through the gate with the gatekeeper’s permission (although he doesn’t mention himself explicitly, which may explain the confusion of the people). Any who seek to “lead” the sheep without going through this gate are nothing more than thieves and robbers. The sheep do not know them and will not follow them (which may be a reference to the blind man who ultimately could not follow the Pharisees in their condemnation of Jesus, but who did end up following Jesus).
Then, Jesus is the gate, the entry point through which the sheep can enter to find safety and protection, and go out to find pasture. The message here is clearer. Jesus has the interests of God’s people (the sheep) at heart. Unlike those (the thieves and robbers) who hurt the sheep (“Steal and kill and destroy” [John 10:10a]. The word here for kill is unusual – thuo – and literally means to “sacrifice”). The bad shepherds, then, use the sheep, sacrificing them for their own gain. Jesus, on the other hand has come to bring life in abundance. I wish the set reading had included verse 11 because here Jesus reveals the key difference between himself as good shepherd and other leaders as bad: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd sacrifices His life for the sheep.” Where bad leaders sacrifice the sheep on the altar of their own greed, power-hunger or need for control, Jesus sacrifices himself for the sheep that they may find life – security within the enclosure that would protect them from predators, and nourishing, life-giving pasture outside.
There is no question that John seeks to show Jesus as the true leader of God’s people, and, as those who themselves enter by the gate, the apostles as the rightful leaders following in Christ’s footsteps. This is further emphasised by the story of the reinstatement of Peter in John 21, where Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him, and each time instructs him to “feed/take care of my sheep/lambs” (21:15-17). For John’s readers there is an invitation. Life is not to be found by following those who claim to be leaders are either blind, or are thieves seeking power for their own benefit. the life that Jesus promised is to be found by following Jesus, and those who follow him, as leaders who put the safety and nourishment of the sheep above their own needs. It’s a simple test of leadership – who gets sacrificed: the sheep, or the shepherd. If it’s the sheep, they’d better run a mile. But, if it’s the shepherd, then the sheep can follow knowing that they will be led to life.
All of which raises a tough challenge for us as Christ-followers. Every person is a leader in some sense. Whether it’s leading our children through parenting, or leading our friends, even as they lead us, through mutual care and encouragement, or leading a company or a church or a country, we all lead someone. We are all called to be shepherds. The tough question we all need to ask, then, is whether we have accepted the job description of Good Shepherd as Jesus defined it – one who lays down her/his life for the sheep.
To the extent that those under my care are hurt, sacrificed or damaged by my need to control, my quest for power or my hope that they will lead me to material gain, I am less a shepherd and more a thief. It is common for “the thief” in John 10:10a to be taken to refer to the devil, but this is not what the context demands. Rather “the thief” is any leader who fails to fit the description of the Good Shepherd – which means that it certainly includes you and me when our selfishness, arrogance or fear are allowed to drive how we interact with others.
On the other hand, we are given the clear and inviting example of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life. In so far as we choose to lay aside our own agendas, our own gain, and our own need to control, in so far as we embrace sacrifice so that others don’t have to, we are the leaders that Jesus calls us to be. Which is why leadership is a job that cannot be taken on lightly. So, here’s the question for you and me to answer – not just today, but every day: In the places where we act as shepherds, who gets sacrificed? From Jesus’ perspective, it better not be the sheep under our care