By Luke Perrin
Chapter 10 of John’s gospel makes me remember Dr. Klein, who was my eleventh grade AP English teacher. I can still see her handwriting all over my carefully crafted compositions—red ink everywhere as she constantly reminded me not to end my sentences with prepositions, and admonished me for mixing my metaphors. Clearly the writer of the Gospel of John never had the benefit of Dr. Klein’s guidance, or he would not have dared to record Jesus’s words the way he does in his long and rambling “I am” passages.
The tenth chapter of this gospel rests its understanding of Christ not on a standard metaphor, but a mixed metaphor. Before John 10, Jesus declares “I am the gate for the sheep” and then mixes it up by saying “I am the good shepherd.” Dr. Klein is surely furious at this point. The author of John’s manuscript is covered in red ink.
Sheep and shepherds were commonplace in Israelite culture. The imagery is shown throughout the Bible…from the picture of the sacrificial lamb introduced during the Exodus, to the words of David in the psalms, to the lowly shepherds who were out in the fields keeping watch over their flocks by night. Sheep are both in the background and the foreground of God’s narrative throughout history. Sheep are also frisky and likely to wander off, getting themselves into all sorts of tight spots that they can’t escape from.
This passage from John makes clear: There is danger. Sheep are completely defenseless animals. They have no menacing claws or teeth, and they are neither fast nor strong in comparison with their predators. They need someone to look after them: someone who will keep an eagle eye out, someone who is willing to defend them, should they be attacked. This is not a glamorous job, but it’s bitterly needed. And it is dangerous: As a shepherd defending your sheep you may end up being wounded yourself.
But what if a priority for self-defense takes on such a role that it begins to inflict harm on the flock itself? Thinking that Jesus is a good shepherd whose only goal is to protect his sheep from outsiders and those who wish to do harm brings us to a frame of mind where we remain on high alert.
Our desire to be careful causes us to become wary of these sneaking in tactics that people might use to get into the fold that we are in. We start to look out for the ways people use to maliciously gain our trust in order to exploit us. We put up safeguards to protect us from those who we think mean us harm. We cast Jesus as a shepherd ready to beat up a sneaky wolf, instead of a Jesus who brings in those who are said to not belong in this fold. We avoid the possibility that the wolf may one day want to join the flock not to harm the sheep, but to be a part of something greater than themselves—a part of something good.
The most radical task of Jesus as the good shepherd isn’t keeping us away from harm or punishing those who do wrong to us, but rather teaching us to graciously welcome each other into community, so we may see how this welcome extends to all people, bringing them together, and revealing to all what true peace looks like.
Christ’s understanding of what it means be the good shepherd beckons a response from us. We cannot be content with allure of inclusivity as an end goal. Bringing people into the flock isn’t the ends, nor is it the means.
It is the expectation. It is the burden. It is the norm that we use to usher in God’s kingdom here and now, and in the days and days to come.
To emulate Christ as good shepherds ourselves is to lay down parts of our lives to provide for others. It is to respond to barriers against equity by giving generously to those in need, rather than prioritizing our stock portfolios. It is to fight for adequate health care for all of God’s children, even if that means paying more in taxes, rather than just bringing casseroles and get-well-soon cards to the members of our congregations who get sick. It is to advocate for housing in your own backyard, instead of endlessly assuming someone else will build it in theirs.
There’s an old legend of a town in Italy that was being terrorized by a wolf. The village lived in fear and constant turmoil, as members of their community were being harmed by the actions of one they did not understand. Francis, the revered saint, is said to have gone to the village to assist the people. When the wolf came charging, St Francis said “come here, brother wolf.” And the wolf just… stopped. The two return to the town together, and Francis asks the people of the town if they will promise to provide food for wolf regularly. They all say they will. St. Francis asks the wolf to give a guarantee in front of all of the people that he will no longer inflict harm upon the people of the town or its animals.
The story says “then the wolf, lifting his right paw, placed it in the hand of St. Francis. Because of this action…there was such rejoicing and wonder among all the people…that they all began to cry to heaven, praising and blessing God.”
The wolf ate from a different house every night as the village provided for him. The miracle was ongoing and touched every member of the flock. So as the 11th chapter of Isaiah tells us, the wolf shall live with the sheep and the leopard rest with the goat and the child will play with the snake.
May it be so with us too.
Luke Perrin is a dual-degree student at Duke Divinity School and the Duke Sanford School for Public Policy. He is a North Carolina native and a current CBF Leadership Scholar.