As well as being ANZAC Day, today is Good Shepherd Sunday in the church calendar, when we consider the passage from John Chapter 10 (and it is only in John’s gospel) where Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd”. You would think this was pretty well-established subject matter to preach on, but the more I read the more interesting theologically it becomes – there are so many links with other passages in the bible, both Old and New Testaments.
If you read the full chapter of John 10 rather than the short lectionary extract, there is some confusion in the story; I sympathise with the Pharisees for not understanding Jesus’s words. We have gates, gatekeepers, shepherds and hired hands; the sheep are led out, and in, and come and go; Jesus talks of his sheep, and his “other” sheep, and in a later verse those who are not his sheep.
It is as if more than one writer has had a go at putting Jesus’ words to parchment, trying to improve and clarify, but in practice muddying the waters.
I could take the easy way out and tell you the story of how shepherds in biblical times slept in the gateway of their sheep shelters, to protect their flocks from predators, but you have no doubt heard it before and besides, I can’t find any hard evidence that this was actually the case. The closest I got in my reading around was “some years ago, a professor friend was hiking in the hills of Judea when he came across a stone sheep pen…” [The Archaeology of the Bible, James K Hoffmeier, 2008]. I’d be pleased to hear from anyone who knows of any actual archaeological research on this. And one outcome of this interpretation is the highly romanticised view of shepherds, with Jesus carrying a cute lamb in his arms or, worse, across his shoulders – a recipe for a strained back, a hoof in the eye and a wet neck! Not that this is a modern interpretation. One of the earliest Christian artworks we have is from the Dura Baptistry in Syria, from about 240 CE, in which the sheep across Jesus’ shoulders is the size of a calf. I suspect this was a largely urban congregation! (or perhaps the artist was more concerned with symbolism than realism).
What picture comes to mind when you think of a shepherd? How many of us are, or have friends who are sheep farmers? (we probably have an advantage in this respect living in NZ!). Metaphors can be hard to translate across the ages and around the world – experience and understanding changes. The shepherd’s role and importance in society has changed since biblical times. Sheep were important to the people of the Old Testament era, for clothing, food and, of course, animal sacrifices! Wealth could be measured in part by how many sheep you owned (or sacrificed), and looking after sheep carried significant responsibility (and potential danger).
The metaphor of the shepherd is widely used in the Old Testament for God and for kings. The most famous shepherd in the Old Testament must surely be David, who was fetched from tending the sheep in the hills (1 Samuel 16:9) and anointed by Samuel as the future king. He went on to use his shepherding skills to see Goliath’s weak spot and put the Philistines to flight.
In his turn, David went on to write that well-known Psalm (Ps 23) in which he describes God as his shepherd: “The LORD is my shepherd…”. In Hebrew, the word Yahweh is used, the great “I AM”, a name for God in much of the Old Testament. So, “Yahweh, is my shepherd”. Literally translated: “I AM is my shepherd”. Does that sound familiar? When the gospel of John was written in the form we have it today, the author used a literary construction pairing miracles with Jesus’ “I am” statements. Although the gospel was written in Greek, it is likely the author was making a play on this element of the Hebrew Old Testament which would have been well known to his readers.
The prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Micah and Zechariah all use the language of shepherds to identify leaders who have been either good or bad in the turbulent history of victories and defeats, conquests and enslavements, following God faithfully and falling back into bad ways.
In first century Judea, oppressed this time under Roman rule, the Jewish people yearned for another
leader like David, the good shepherd, and this is probably how the first audience of John’s Gospel would have understood the passage we have read. Not that a king was necessarily a good thing! In King David’s time, and through to probably the 18 th century, the ordinary people were essentially at the disposal of the King – if you disagreed with the monarch you had no right of appeal or even of protest.
In the Old Testament Samuel warned the Israelites, who were asking for a king instead of a priestly leader, about what it would be like: the king would take their best land and livestock, their sons to manage the confiscated land and for his armies, their daughters to work for him. He would tax them and give the money to his cronies, and he would make them slaves (1 Samuel 8:10-18). But the people refused to listen and still asked for a king. Most people thought this was just the way it was meant to be (and at least it was your own king, not someone else’s!). And of course, King David ended up by, as they say these days, “making some bad choices” before he handed over the reins to his son Solomon.
Bringing this back to ANZAC Day, there was still an element of this attitude in society at the time of the First World War, except that the idea of duty to country was merging with duty to the monarch. Even in New Zealand, on the opposite side of the world from the battlefields of Europe, there was strong societal pressure to do your bit “for King and empire”. Dissent in time of war was suppressed as unpatriotic and disruptive; conscientious objectors were lumped together with “shirkers”. Although there were valid criticisms of the causes, objectives and methods of the First World War, debate became impossible, and criticism could result in prison sentences. Looking back, we can see how both sides in the war were greedy for territorial control both in Europe and their colonies, and how ultimately futile the war was. The leaders of the day might not have been kings but were they good or bad shepherds?
The prophet Ezekiel said that David was put in place as God’s shepherd because the previous “shepherds” were not looking after the sheep. “Woe to you shepherds 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” (Ezekiel 34:2-4).
The prophet Jeremiah (Jer 23:1-4) told the unjust kings of Judah that God (The LORD/Yahweh) was saying “woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of my pasture…”. Bad leaders! What should they have been doing? In the previous chapter we hear “Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of his oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the alien, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.” (Jer 22:3)
Our second reading is from Acts 4, and there is a parallel between the setting of this story and the one we heard earlier in John 10. In the gospel reading, Jesus is being challenged by the Pharisees who are critical of his healing a blind man on the Sabbath. In Acts 4, Peter has been summoned by the high priests (Sadducees) to account for healing a cripple. The healings are presented as challenges to the authority of the priests, set against Jesus’ authority as Messiah (Christ). In both cases, the critics are primarily concerned about power and who has the right to exercise it; they lose sight of the people in need of healing.
In John 10, the Pharisees actually badger the formerly blind man about his healing; they bring him in twice and try to get him to change his story, they hurl insults at him when he does not, and even bring in his parents to try to suggest there is some trickery going on. The context of the story has been updated to reflect the period in which the gospel was written. The Pharisees were not a significant power group until after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, nor is it likely that synagogues were threatening expulsion for declaring Jesus as the Messiah until after his crucifixion. This does not negate the power of the story – we too need to update it and consider who currently is abusing their role of authority to the extent that maintaining power is more important than meeting the needs of the people they are meant to represent (I’m sure I don’t need to mention any names). The same view can be taken of the anti-Jewish attitudes and exclusivity shown in the readings – these are First Century attitudes. We need to look behind them to see what message is transferable to our modern world.
Later in John’s gospel, Peter is called by the resurrected Jesus to “feed my sheep”. The symbolic asking of this three times is in response to Peter’s three denials at Jesus’ trial. In the story we heard from Acts, Peter, who was previously terrified of being associated with Jesus, now stands up and defends his actions in the name of Jesus Christ (the Greek term for Messiah). As he says, “If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness… then know this….!” He is indignant that they are called to account for doing good, and this should be our attitude too wherever we see injustice, authorities covering up injustice, or injustices embedded within “the system”.
If the Gospel of John was using the shepherd metaphor for kingship and the “I am” metaphor for God, then a kingdom is also implied – the “Kingdom of God”. In our April Theology Discovery Group we listened to a webinar given by John Dominic Crossan, in which he discussed the Jewish understanding of resurrection and establishing the “Kingdom” of God. In this tradition, the Jewish people expected that God would intervene in the messy world to straighten out all the injustices and end the oppression of the Jewish people – God’s Kingdom would be established on earth, not in some heavenly realm. The arrival of the Messiah would start this process and it would culminate in the resurrection of the dead and God’s judgement. Resurrection included everyone and so Jesus’ resurrection was the start of a process, not an isolated event. This was also the understanding of the early Christian Church, as shown in early depictions of the resurrection, and it continues to be shown like this in the traditions of the Eastern Christian churches.
If the resurrection has already begun, and God’s Kingdom is already being established on earth, the problems of this world will not be solved by us waiting for God to intervene in some final judgement day. Instead, Jesus has shown us the way, and God is waiting for us to continue the work. [Ref Borg/Crossan “The Last Week”]. This was recognised by Peter and the other apostles when they came out of hiding, stepped out of their comfort zones, and started to take action. Of course, it can be very comforting, particularly in a time of war, or pandemic, to think of ourselves as having a loving shepherd who cares for and watches over us. But, as one of the songs we sang last week says: “we are an Easter people”, and rather than being sheep we are all called to be shepherds. If we act as Jesus and Peter did, to heal the sick and stand up against injustice, then the resurrection will really be underway.
ANZAC Hymn: “Here All Belong” (Tune: ‘Here I am Lord’ (Dan Schutte)
Truth be told, we’re not alone:
we have built ourselves a home;
built it large, and built it free –
love was our goal.
This, a home for anyone,
creed or custom, barring none.
This, a place where love can grow –
here all belong.
May we find here, what we’re seeking.
May we share the strength to carry on.
May the love here do the healing,
lift our hearts, and make us all as one.
Truth be told, we cannot be
whole without diversity.
many different voices raised
create the song.
Whether brown or black or white,
all together, we are light;
any-gendered, any-loved –
here all belong
Truth be told, when gathered here,
we can all our sorrows bear,
held in hearts made strong by love;
we shall not fail.
Aged wisdom, questing youth,
all connected, seeking truth,
altogether, each inspires –
here all belong.
© 2016 Gretta Vosper