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The Fourth Sunday of Easter
Ezekiel 34:1-10; Psalm 23; 1 John 3:1-10; John 10:11-16
Jesus, the Good Shepherd In the 2nd century, BCE, over 100 years before Jesus was born, the Jewish people were under the oppressive thumb of the Greek Seleucid Empire. This was one of the fragments of Alexander the Great’s empire. The ruler of the Seleucids despised the Jews and their religion, their worship of the true God, and so sought to turn them to Greek belief. What followed, as they resisted, was a systematic attempt to eradicate the Jewish people. During this, a number of Jews sought his favor, supporting his efforts to make the Jews commit idolatry. These sympathizers were in positions of leadership, and compromised the pure worship of God. But not everyone did. A man named Matthias, when the authorities tried to force him to make a sacrifice to a pagan god, slew the government official. His sons, led by Judas Maccabeus, then carried out a guerilla war for several years, eventually driving the Seleucids from Judea and reestablishing their independence. During this conflict, they regained Jerusalem, and re-dedicated the Temple to God in what has come to be known as the Festival of Lights, or Hanukkah, thanking God for his preservation and for allowing the Jews to be faithful.
John 10 occurs during this holy day, the Festival of Lights. During the time of Jesus, there is solid evidence that Ezekiel 34 was read in the liturgy of the celebration. This passage in Ezekiel speaks of false shepherds, leaders who betray the trust given to them and oppress the people. They would have read this because the leaders of Jerusalem who gave in to the pressure of the Seleucids were supposed to be shepherds, were supposed to protect and guide the people!
This is the context for Jesus’s statement that he is “the Good Shepherd.” What does a Shepherd do? A shepherd has responsibility to guide and protect the sheep. Sheep are dumb animals, not fast or intelligent, and generally easily spooked. They are easy prey. The shepherd is necessary for their survival. Shepherds in the ancient world would lead them away from home to pasture grounds so they could eat; he would sleep there; he would defend them against the wild beasts or thieves who would try to steal them; he would do whatever he could to protect his sheep.
The shepherd knows his sheep, and the sheep know him. Many times, the shepherds would have specific, unique calls they used just with their own sheep. Like any domesticated animal, the sheep know their master. Without their master, the sheep will perish.
Jesus here tells them “I am the Good Shepherd,” and the Good Shepherd lays his life down for his sheep. He is here for them, the Jewish people who truly believe, and FOR US, those who he says are the “other sheep” they don’t know about. This is why God the Son became incarnate: To lay down his life for the sheep.
With the backdrop of the Maccabean War and Ezekiel 34, we are positioned to better understand the deep rooted point of Jesus’s metaphor here. He is speaking to the religious leaders of his day, the Pharisees and Scribes, and saying, “I am the Good Shepherd.” What does that make them? The bad shepherds of the Maccabean days, and of Ezekiel 34. And what does it mean to be a “bad shepherd”?
Read Ezekiel 34:3-6. Does this sound like any so-called shepherds of our day? There are pastors out there who would rather protect their reputations then calling out people who commit abuse, or lie, and often enough do so themselves. We have political leaders who tell us to trust them, while they grow fat off of their donors and pass laws to benefit themselves, and ensure their own reelections. We have corporate leaders who are all too happy to exploit people in other countries, or their employees here, just to make more. We have bad shepherds.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd. Jesus lays his life down for the sheep. Jesus loves us, his sheep, and wants to help us, rescue us, and so he does: He dies in order that we might be saved from our sins and raised again.
The Good Shepherd lays his life down for his sheep, for us. But the sheep, if they are to receive the blessing of that sacrifice of the shepherd, must follow the shepherd. We must follow Jesus. The way in which sheep follow their master is the way we must follow Jesus. We must know and trust that he is the one who will save us, who will lead us home. Sometimes, we are the bad shepherds. We do not lead well, or are not good examples. I do not always lay my life down the way I ought to. You won’t either. When that happens, when we fail to lead well, it is because we fail to follow well. What you can do is trust that where you fail, The Good Shepherd will not. And he will care for you when you go astray.
The road will be rocky, and wolves will come in. We will be abandoned by some, hired servants who are only here in the Church for their own benefit. We will not be without our scars. But We can trust our Good Shepherd, that when the time comes, we will live with God in peace.
Have Faith. Know the voice of your Shepherd. Follow him. Do not let yourself be led astray by the voices telling you what you know the Shepherd would deny. Know the Shepherd as he knows you. Be blessed.
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