Thursday, 26 April 2007

the good shepherd John 10 22-30

At his very first entrance into the narrative of the gospel Jesus is announced by John the Baptist as “The Lamb of God”. Now he announces himself as the “Good Shepherd”. The word shepherd was closely connected with kingship. The notion of the people as a “flock” was deeply embedded in the imagery of worship, through the Psalms and prophetic literature. This understanding of the king as shepherd and his subjects as the flock was probably a least partially rooted in David’s role as the shepherd king.

But the role of shepherd also had less clear but no less powerful antecedents in the more mythical mists of Jewish history: if Yahweh was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob then he was the God of a shepherd race. Jacob indeed was the consummate shepherd who breeding skills with sheep brought him his wives and enabled him to father the tribes of Israel. It was while shepherding on the back flank of Sinai that Moses (the palace boy) received his calling to bring Israel out of slavery, as God made himself known to him as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and revealed his name. Further back beyond the mists of time it was Abel’s, the shepherd’s, sacrifice that was pleasing to God whereas Cain’s cereal offering was not.

The prophet Ezekiel (chapter 34) had roundly condemned both shepherds and sheep for selfishness and greed: as shepherds they had cared better for the strong than the weak and as sheep they had practised survival of the fittest and left the weak and the lame to perish. It was going to need God to set a new pattern of shepherding for his people so that they could learn afresh how to be sheep and ultimately how to be shepherds.

The kingship exercised in the time of Jesus by the Romans was that of the wolf of Rome. That kingship was not even that of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The wolf-like coat was worn with pride. The kingship provided by Herod was that of the fox – a sort of counterfeit wolf. The Jewish leaders cross-examining Jesus in the temple are not even fit to be in the flock let alone shepherds.

It would be difficult to be more insulting to the priesthood than to claim that they were no longer part of God’s flock. In the fearful chapter 25 of Matthew the sheep and goats are separated out: but at least originally the sheep and goats would have coexisted happily in the same flock. Here the shepherd disowns the flock. There are some who hear his voice and belong and others who don’t and don’t. The issue is not of feeling – nor appearance nor breeding. It is simply one of recognition and obedience. Is the way of Jesus authentically that of God the King and Shepherd of his people? If you believe it is and live it then you are in the flock. If it is not you stand outside in the cold. And the days are wintry and dark indeed outside the fold.

Of all the Jewish festivals – the festival of Hanukkah was the most nationalistic. It was also the most recent. It celebrated the time when Judas Maccabaeus and his fellow nationalist rebels had stormed into the Jerusalem of Antiochus, thrown the Persian invader out and cleansed the temple of his blasphemous Gentile statue and effects. It was at this very feast that Jesus made this outrageous assault on those who regarded themselves as the prize sheep in God’s most prestigious flock (if not even shepherds themselves). Earlier in the chapter he has pointed out that there other sheep outside the historic flock of Jacob, who will be part of his flock. It is to be the greatest flock that ever lived. They asked him if he was the messiah. His answer upped the stakes. His mission was even greater than that of the Messiah as they envisaged it. His mission was not simply local to Jerusalem, it was global. If the vision of Ezekiel was that of shepherds failing even to be sheep, Jesus was so conquering as Lamb that he was to be the ultimate shepherd.

3 comments:

Jeremie said...

Look! Comment number 2!

Lol, http://www.theolog.org/blog/2007/04/stolen_goods.html#comments

Jeremie said...

On a more serious note...

I love the rhetorical flip in Revalation this week, the flip that the Lamb is the Shepherd...

Also, this talk of the Messiah and the temple seems very literary to me...This story (John's reading) happens on the day that Jews celebrate the dedication of the temple in the Maccabean era; the dialogue happens just outside the temple; and Jesus seems to say the temple is being dedicated anew-in him.

Jeremie said...

Wow, I sound so smart when I spell Revelation wrong...