Good Shepherd and Sheep

This coming Sunday is the 4th Sunday of Easter and our gospel text is taken from John 10 which includes the memorable Johannine imagery of the Good Shepherd. The opening verses (vv.1-2) are actually one sentence in the Greek and form a carefully balanced parallelism that establishes the identity of the shepherd (v.2) by first establishing who he is not (v.1).  1 “Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever does not enter a sheepfold through the gate but climbs over elsewhere is a thief and a robber. 2 But whoever enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 

While scholars have debated for ages is this is a simile, parable or metaphor, what seems clear is that Jesus is drawing a distinction between those who are (a) the one(s) expected and known by gatekeeper and sheep alike, and (b) those who are pretenders to that responsibility and authority. It is for the one sent and charged with pastoral care to call out all his sheep, to lead them, going on ahead of them. This part of the parable is reminiscent of Moses’ prayer for a successor: 16 “May the LORD, the God of the spirits of all mankind, set over the community a man 17 who shall act as their leader in all things, to guide them in all their actions; that the LORD’S community may not be like sheep without a shepherd.”  (Numbers 27:16–17)

The latter part of v.3 (the sheep hear his voice) literally translates as “the sheep the sounds (phōnēs) his hear.”  While voice might be part of the range of calls the shepherd might use, perhaps when one considers the use of whistles, “sounds” is the better translation.  In any case, the key is the link between recognition of the proper phōnēs and the resulting movement: lead-follow. The movement is also twinned: call-answer, lead-follow, stranger-run away.  In one, the movement is towards intimacy (v.4); in the other, the movement is towards separation (v.5).

It would seem clear that Jesus’ “figure of speech” (v.6) should be read with the larger context of the tradition OT image of God as the shepherd and God’s people as the sheep (e.g., Pss 23:1; 74:1; 79:31; 80:1; 95:7; 100:3 – and Ezekiel 34:1-10).  God is the Good Shepherd who will rescue the sheep.

The Pharisee’s conduct towards the man-born-blind (cf. 9:34) has demonstrated that they do not have the flock’s best interest at heart. This stands in contrast to Jesus who has cared for the man and as we see at the end of John 9, the man responds to Jesus.

Image credit: Frank Merino, Pexels, image 7360551

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