This is the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow, Sunday, May 3, 2009. I hope your day is a wonderful one!
The Difference Between the Good Shepherd and the Hired Hand
11“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns 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. 13The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.
14“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— 15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16I 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. 17The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. 18No 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. This command I received from my Father.”
A Real Live Encounter with a Sheep
When we lived in Lilburn, Georgia in 1974, we had a wonderful family in our church named the Eidsons. They lived on Beaver Ruin Road, which is where the original Beaver Ruin Baptist Church was located. I suppose at some point some beavers had ruined the creek, or the ruins of a beaver dam became a landmark — “Go two miles down the road and when you see the beaver ruin, turn at the next right.” Kind of like our Tightsqueeze.
But, back to the Eidsons. John and Margaret lived on a few acres with their three children — a boy and two girls. John was a deacon in our church and grew up in the country, and still kept his hand in on the acres he owned in that part of Gwinnett County. The Eidsons always had a garden, and they had a cow. For awhile, we got milk from them and it was wonderful. The cream separated and floated on top, and you had to shake the bottle before you poured a glass. At church when the lesson called for the preschoolers to make butter by shaking a jar of whole milk, Margaret always brought the milk straight from their cow.
The Eidsons also had a sheep. I think they just had one, at least I only remember one. Now back in 1974, I was a young preacher boy all of 26 years old, and I had about a much interest in farming and gardening as I did in going to the moon. I may have actually had more interest in going to the moon, now that I think about it, because we had just landed on the moon. But back to the sheep. We were over at the Eidsons one day, and John and I were talking about the church and walking in his yard behind the house.
We walked up to the fence, and the sheep came over to him. John rubbed the sheep’s head, and asked me if I had ever felt the wool on a sheep. “No, I don’t think I have,” I replied. He said, “Put your hand in her wool.” This sheep had not been sheared for awhile and she was quite woolly. “Feel the lanolin?” John asked me.
I had pulled my hand back and felt the kind of soft, oily substance on my hand. “That’s lanolin,” John said. “It’ll keep your skin soft.” Come to find out, it’s the lanolin that helps shed water off of sheep — a kind of waterproofing for all-weather flocks. Well, that was my first, and I think last face-to-face encounter with a sheep. But even as disinterested as I was then, I was taken with John’s way with the sheep, and the sheep really seemed to like John. He knew his sheep, even one, and the sheep knew him.
Jesus Echoes the Words of A Prophet
That story brings us to our passage today, from John 10. Jesus has just come from healing a man by spitting on the ground and applying the mud to his eyes. Of course, Jesus did this on the Sabbath, which incurred the wrath of those watchdogs of the faith, the Pharisees. All that takes place in John 9, and John then records Jesus talking about the sheep and the shepherds.
Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.” Those words imply that there are bad shepherds, too. And there were, both in Jesus’ day and in the Old Testament book of Ezekiel. In Ezekiel 34, hear these words from the prophet Ezekiel:
1Then the word of the LORD came to me saying,
2“Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel Prophesy and say to those shepherds, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD, “Woe, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding themselves! Should not the shepherds feed the flock?
3“You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat sheep without feeding the flock.
4“Those who are sickly you have not strengthened, the diseased you have not healed, the broken you have not bound up, the scattered you have not brought back, nor have you sought for the lost; but with force and with severity you have dominated them.
5“They were scattered for lack of a shepherd, and they became food for every beast of the field and were scattered.
6“My flock wandered through all the mountains and on every high hill; My flock was scattered over all the surface of the earth, and there was no one to search or seek for them.”‘”
7Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD:
8“As I live,” declares the Lord GOD, “surely because My flock has become a prey, My flock has even become food for all the beasts of the field for lack of a shepherd, and My shepherds did not search for My flock, but rather the shepherds fed themselves and did not feed My flock;
9therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD:
10‘Thus says the Lord GOD, “Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will demand My sheep from them and make them cease from feeding sheep So the shepherds will not feed themselves anymore, but I will deliver My flock from their mouth, so that they will not be food for them.”‘”
So, when Jesus identifies himself as the “good shepherd” and implies that there are bad shepherds, too, those who hear him instantly recognize he is indicting the religious leaders of his day — the Pharisees, Saduccees, and the chief priest — for spiritual corruption.
Jesus’ accusation is that the “hireling” in the King James, or the hired hand, does the shepherd’s job for personal gain, and not for the sake of the sheep.
And, when the hired hand sees a threat to the flock, he runs away leaving the sheep defenseless. It was a poorly kept secret that the chief priest was in cahoots with the Roman occupation of Judea, and that the Pharisees enjoyed special treatment because they remained silent in the face of the outrages perpetrated by the presence of Roman troops in Jerusalem.
The description of the bad shepherds by the prophet Ezekiel surely came to mind when Jesus invoked the shepherd imagery. Ezekiel says that the bad shepherds:
- Fed themselves, but not the flock.
- Slaughtered the fat sheep, dressed in fine woolen garments, but did not feed the flock.
- Did not care for the sick, diseased, or broken sheep.
- Did not seek the lost or scattered sheep.
- Dominated the flock with force and severity.
Then Ezekiel speaks the words of God: ‘Thus says the Lord GOD, “Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will demand My sheep from them and make them cease from feeding sheep So the shepherds will not feed themselves anymore, but I will deliver My flock from their mouth, so that they will not be food for them.’
The Good Shepherd Lays Down His Life
But Jesus says there is a different kind of shepherd, a good shepherd. As interested as the bad shepherd is in his own profit, the good shepherd is interested in his sheep. There are three reasons Jesus gives for being a good shepherd:
- “I know my sheep and they know me.”
- “I lay down my life for the sheep.”
- “I have other sheep…I must bring them, too.”
“I know my sheep and they know me.” That’s a picture of relationship, of time spent together, of trust, of care, of interest in those under his watch, and of personal knowledge of them. This is no long-distance relationship. This is not a cold professionalism. This is an intimate understanding of which sheep likes to run ahead, of which lambs are the most playful, of which ewes the most attentive, of which rams the most defensive. This is a shepherd who knows his sheep, calls their names, counts their heads when they enter and leave the sheepfold. This is a shepherd who loves his sheep.
This is not just a job, not just a meal ticket, this is the shepherd’s life because these are his sheep. And this shepherd knows that you can shear the sheep a couple of times a year, but you can only skin them once. These sheep exist because he protects them, guards them, searches for them, and brings them home each night.
“I lay down my life for the sheep.” This quality of the shepherd really has a double meaning. Jesus, in this same chapter, refers to himself as the sheep gate. When the sheep were out in the pastures, the custom was for the shepherd to usher them into the sheepfold each night. The sheepfold was typically a stacked stone compound, high enough for keep out predators, but without a door. The shepherd then lay down in the opening to the sheepfold, and literally became the sheepgate. Nothing went in or came out unless it came by the shepherd first.
But then, of course, Jesus really does lay down his life for the sheep. We have before us today the symbols of that sacrifice. And, Jesus makes it clear here in John 10 that he is laying down his life of his own accord — he’s choosing to give his life for the sheep, and that is why the Father loves him so.
“I have other sheep…I must bring them, too.” Finally, the good shepherd is concerned for all the sheep, for sheep in general, not just the ones in his sheepfold. Scholars have often interpreted this statement of Jesus to mean that the Gentiles would also hear the Gospel. Which they — we — did and responded. But, I think Jesus is saying something much bigger than that. I think he’s saying “there are some unlikely sheep — the unclean, the poor, the diseased, the lame, the weak, the oppressed — these are my sheep, too.” Not just the upright, the righteous, the powerful, the ones like us. One preacher said if Jesus were making his “good shepherd” statement today, he would say, I am the “good migrant worker.” Why? Because shepherds were among the lowest classes of their day. They were ceremonially unclean, and therefore could not worship God with the assembly of Israel. They were the marginalized, the ones who did the dirty work, who lived with the herds out in the pastures, who did the jobs no one else wanted to do. The good shepherd cares for all sheep, not just the ones who are currently in his sheepfold.
An Example of a Good Shepherd
In El Salvador in the late 1970s, the country was rocked by political turmoil and violence. Death squads, under the direction of the Salvadoran political leaders, roamed the countryside kidnapping and killing all who opposed their policies and regime. Archbishop Oscar Romero was an unassuming figure in the midst of his countries chaos. Selected as the compromise candidate, Archbishop Romero had stayed clear of politics, and had even harshly criticized Catholic priests in the country who had embraced the new and radical liberation theology.
But one night as his assistant, a priest named Rutillio Grande, a 7-year old boy, and an old man, were all gunned down by one of the death squads. Archbishop Romero went to the tiny village to claim the body of the slain priest, and to comfort the families of the little boy and old man. That night the Archbishop of El Salvadore stood in a small parish church looking out at the crowd gathered to hear him speak. Fear gripped the countryside, and Oscar Romero promised them that the violence would end. That peace would come to El Salvador. That he was with them in their fear and in their struggle. One of Romero’s biographers wrote later “The peasants had asked for a good shepherd and that night they received one.”
At this point in El Salvador’s sad history, 3,000 people were being killed per month. Bodies were dumped in streams, and in the garbage dump of San Salvador. 75,000 people would die, thousands more vanish, and 1,000,000 people leave the tiny country of El Salvador during this reign of terror.
Oscar Romero took to the airwaves, and in his weekly homily, promised that he would not rest until all the violence was ended, until peace came to El Salvador. He refused to attend the inauguration of El Salvador’s latest president, which further inflamed the opposition against him. All the bishops of El Salvador turned on him, complaining to the Vatican that he had become “politicized.” But Romero continued to speak out.
He not only spoke out, he made frequent trips to the massive garbage dumps, accompanying families who were searching for the bodies of their loved ones. He spoke at funerals for the murdered; stopped the construction of El Salvador’s majestic cathedral until the killing stopped; and, refused to hold communion during a period of particular violence.
The final straw came when Romero, in a radio address to the El Salvadoran troops, urged them to stop killing their fellow citizens, and told them that ” No soldier is obliged to obey an order that is contrary to the will of God . . . “
The next day, while saying a public mass, Oscar Romero was shot in the chest by a man standing at the back of the church. Romero fell behind the altar, at the feet of the massive crucifix of Jesus, who was shown bleeding from the wound in his own side. There Romero died, a martyr for God, a good shepherd who laid down his life for his sheep. Just before Romero was shot, he said, “”One must not love oneself so much, as to avoid getting involved in the risks of life that history demands of us, and those that fend off danger will lose their lives.”
The passage he had just read was,
“Unless the grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains only a grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit ”(Jn. 12:23-26)