Ps. 23; Acts 4:1-12; 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18
Shepherd, “I Am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (v. 11).
Apart from the festivals at which Jesus identifies being “the good shepherd”, Tabernacles and again during Hanukah, it is not possible to discern his meaning.
When Jesus is unhinged from the contexts into which the Evangelist has placed him, his words can mislead. As for shepherding in general, one might conjure fluffy, hapless sheep grazing over rolling meadows under the watchful eye of shepherd Jesus; but that is wrong.
Another tempting image is of shepherd Jesus feeding 5,000 on lakeside turf. The problem is, that such picturesque scenes are not context for the 23rd Psalm nor understanding Jesus as “the good shepherd”.
Romanticized pastoral scenes of sheep under the gentle care of Shepherd Jesus, as many understand Ps. 23, are unworthy of an Easter sermon that must encompass the gathering storm of cross and Resurrection aftermath.
It is important we get this straight, sheep are not pets, nor are we; as Jesus is sacrificial Lamb of God, Christians too are destined for shearing and slaughter. The only question, is whether we are killed in Christ offered to God; or die from participation in an unbelieving world destined to be demonic food; sheep are for slaughter and consumption.
Early in Jesus’ ministry St. John has him in the temple driving-out the animals of its cultus. In the Resurrection the disciples remembered, “Zeal for Thy house will consume me” (Ps. 69:9; Jn. 2:17) a Psalm that anticipated Jesus’ holocaust on the cross and portent of his body as God’s new Temple.
Tabernacles is a harvest in-gathering festival at which Jesus’ shepherding words intended to inform of the Father’s new dwelling, the place for his sheep to obtain the Father’s provision. Jesus is our bread, meat, and drink; that so fed we also might be means of sustenance for brothers and sisters.
Today’s Gospel occurs on the last, the eighth “great day” of Tabernacles. During the temple “Water Ceremony” Jesus cried, “out of my heart shall flow rivers of living water” (7:37-38), for thirsting sheep. At the nighttime “Ceremony of Lights”, Jesus declared, “I am the light of the world” (8:12), that his sheep follow in a new exodus to the Father at his coming Passover sacrifice.
While in the temple Jesus told “the Jews” (as John calls the religious establishment), “Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham was, I Am.” (v. 58), at which they picked up stones, driving Jesus out, much as he earlier did the temple merchants. Jesus was excommunicate, outside his Father’s house, looking in.
Jesus on departing the temple came upon a man blind from birth who received Jesus’ spit, mud, and washing. Like Adam, begotten out of the earth to humanity, the former blind man was sighted for hearing the things of God, from Him who is Light. In this way “the [new creation] works of God [were] made manifest in him” (9:3).
On one hand, we discern a Jewish convert; on the other, unconverted shepherds blinded for hatred of Jesus. “The Jews” instituted legal proceedings against the formerly blind man and on his confession of being Jesus’ disciple (v. 27); was excommunicate. Outside the Community of God there is only death. For hatred of Jesus, “the Jews” intended to murder a brother; proving to be but hirelings and blind guides of God’s sheep (10:12, 13).
Jesus searched-out this one lost sheep (cf. Lk. 15;1-7) restoring him to faith and salvation (Jn. 9:35-38); thus, the in-gathering of Tabernacles and Jesus’ coming Passover death for the life of the sheep is context for Jesus’ appropriation of Ps. 23, “I Am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (10:11).
Abel, was mankind’s first shepherd; he sacrificially offered God, best of flock. God received the Abel’s sacrifice, engendering Cain’s hatred toward God to murder his brother. God heard Abel’s blood for vengeance spilt into the ground (4:10-12).
Cain, banished from Community, received God’s mark of grace, that he not be mistreated for his sin. On the cross Jesus, offered his life-blood poured into the earth, the Good Shepherd crying out, “Father, forgive them…” (Luke 23:34).
By nature, we are brothers and sisters of Cain in need of mercy and grace. Our gracious mark of God’s mercy is Holy Baptism in the sign of the cross for forgiveness; like Cain, and the man blind from birth, we receive grace for sin in Christ.
None of Jesus’ talk in today’s Gospel originates from lakeside meadow imagery; rather Jesus being “good shepherd” is new Temple talk. Jesus is God’s way to himself, “I Am the Gate; if anyone enters by me, he will be saved … and find pasture” (Jn. 10:9).
The old temple consisted of increasingly restrictive courts leading to the Holy of Holies, each connected through gates admitting fewer Israelites until, on the Day of Atonement only the High Priest, entered God’s presence.
The gate allowing Levitical priests for animal sacrifices was, the “Nicanor Gate”, before which, on rising steps, the temple choir would chant such as Psalm 23, “The LORD is my shepherd…”.
Jesus crucified and risen is God’s new dwelling, Good Shepherd having laid down his life for the sheep. Jesus is our new Temple “Nicanor Gate” for our priestly entrance to the Father with our High Priest in whom we offer eucharistic sacrifice, hearts made new in Christ for brotherly love.
How then, do we enter before the Father in the NT Holy of Holies? St. John tells, “Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer … [I]f anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or speech but in deed and in truth” (1 Jn. 3:14b, 15a, 16a, 17, 18).
We know love is not an abstraction or feeling; it descends upon us, first as unmerited grace for Christ’s sake, then in faith recognizing our murderous hearts with Cain to repentance and plea for mercy.
God marks us by water, blood, and Spirit from Christ crucified. In Baptism we are in fellowship with brothers and sisters in love’s maturation sighted for discerning the needy among us, to hear pain, trouble, suffering, and all who have wandered from the church distaining her faith.
As for the world, we give what the church has to give, inviting all to apostolic instruction. Our love is not so much talk but deeds of Truth (1 Jn. 3:18) directing all who will hear Jesus, “I Am the good shepherd … for the sheep”. Amen.