Reflections on the Good Shepherd

A Parable

Very truly I tell you Pharisees

The audience matters. Since I learned this parable at church, I assumed it was directed toward the church. The church (maybe the American church) seems to assume all of Jesus’ teachings are directed at us. This one is meant to teach the Pharisees (perhaps we were not so wrong in the end).

anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in some other way, is a thief and a robber. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.

What is the pen, and who is the flock inside it? Surely a teacher of the law would instantly recognize their own flock in the parable. The pen offers protection, and boundaries. Perhaps a Pharisee would have recognized this as the Law and the Hedge he has placed around it.

The gatekeeper opens the gate for him,

“Prepare ye the way of the Lord”—John the Baptist, perhaps.

and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.

This is where my understanding of the parable is shaken. This is not a parable about being in the right flock, safe within the right sheep pen. The shepherd comes to lead the sheep out. To where? If the pen is the Law—even outside of the Law? If the pen is the Jewish identity—this may be more likely, as Christ was preparing his flock to join a greater Kingdom.

But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.

If only this were true, would we have followed so many false leaders? Or is it indeed true, but the “true” sheep are few?

Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them.

Small wonder.

Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.

Jesus does not lead with the Shepherd analogy. He begins first as the Gate.

All who have come before me are thieves and robbers,

All? Only the false Messiahs? The Pharisees themselves?

but the sheep have not listened to them.

… then surely he’s not referring to the Prophets. More than likely, he refers to his audience.

I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.

This is a parable about salvation, and salvation is moving through the gate. But again, the meaning hinges on something subtle—which way is entering? To begin, he said he “leads them out.” Rather than entering the pen to be saved, are we not existing the pen, and entering something greater? Who would expect to be saved by entering the same sheep pen where they had been before the Shepherd arrived?

They will come in and go out, and find pasture.

Here is where I begin to wear the semantics so thin that they may break. “Come in”—to where? “Go out”—to pasture. Is this a description of entering and leaving the sheep pen, as it seems at first? Or is it a description of a sheep as it “comes in” to the gate, by which it will “go out” to pasture? In either case, however thin the latter reading may be, the ending is a clear introduction of the “pasture” as a metaphorical place of salvation.

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

Can a full life be lived in the pen alone? Shouldn’t we be free-range? Is that what defines “life to the full?”

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

Why should a man die for sheep? A Christian is so familiar with this concept (David, etc) that we may miss the strangeness. Surely the sheep are not worth dying for.

The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.

Another jab at his audience, perhaps. Who is the hired hand? A false leader seeking glory, but lacking love for the flock?

“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me—just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.

We are to know Christ as Christ knows God. This is not a small detail. Christ was in God and was God. We know we are to be in Christ (John 15), but how are we to be Christ—not just be like Christ, but even in the same way Christ was God?

I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.

Again, Christ is preparing his flock for an exodus from the confines of their religious nationalism and the boundaries of even the Law and Traditions, to bring them into the pasture and to be one flock.

The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again.

The reason? This is a statement I still don’t know how to approach.

No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again.

No one— not even the Father? Is Christ expressing his autonomy as a person to underscore his willingness and responsibility for his own life-sacrifice?

This command I received from my Father.”

Yet even while expressing his own authority, Christ defers to the authority of the Father. So this becomes another mystery.

Further Thoughts

I reach a tentative conclusion on this metaphor.

The sheep-pen is the confines of national and religious identity, including the boundaries of the Law and the expectations of a rules-based holiness.

There are other sheep-pens besides that of the Pharisees. We (the American Church; or more pointedly the Evangelical Church) have created our own, as we have become Neo-Pharisees. And there are many other kinds of identities and religions, with their own boundaries, laws and expectations which limit freedom and prevent “life in the fullest.” For how can any law, no matter how wise, always allow for the perfect application of love? Only the practice of the Law of Love can fulfill itself fully.

In each of these other pens, there is still a gate, and the gate is still Christ. Christ speaks to all identities, all nations, and all religions. To each Christ is the way from confinement into the pasture. All wordly institutions, even religions, create confinement. Even worldly freedom by rejection of institution creates slavery (to one’s own desires).

When we try to reach someone, but do not do it through Christ, we are not entering by the gate. We are thieves and robbers. Our goal should not be to transport others from their sheep pen into ours. We are leading them to their gate to join us in the pasture.

The pasture is the freedom which is attained by practicing the Law of Love (the New Covenant) under the care and direction of Christ (by the Spirit). The pasture, compared to the pen, is limitless. It is universal, encompassing both heaven and earth (the distinctions of which rapidly become irrelevant). It is the Kingdom.

Yet there are wolves in the pasture. Its freedom is not safety; in fact, the opposite. Those who crave safety stay in the pen. The way to survive in the pasture is to follow the Shepherd, without alternative. To those who fear the pasture, and find comfort in the pen, this seems like foolishness.

Christ is both universal and singular. Christ is the Way, but the Way extends to touch all ways. There is a signpost to God on every road.