In Jesus' day, the term, "good shepherd," would have been heard as an oxymoron – a contradiction of terms. Shepherds were anything but good. They lived as nomads, grazing their sheep on other people's land. They were notorious for lying, cheating and stealing. And so, for Jesus to identify himself as a shepherd is quite remarkable. It goes along with his willingness to befriend the outcast, touch the leper and eat with tax collectors and sinners. It speaks of Jesus' humility, to become as one of us in order to redeem us. All this is to say, we don't have to be perfect in order to walk in Jesus' company, he meets us where we are. The Good News is, we're accepted, shepherds and all.
We want Jesus to tame what is wild and unruly in the world, who with the crook of his staff, can solve what is unsolvable and answer what is unanswerable in life, who can protect and defend against the thieves and bandits of this world who come only to steal, kill, and destroy. Regardless of what we want, though, we eventually come face-to-face with the reality that the world is still wild and unruly, that there are still questions without answers, that there are still thieves and bandits in the world bent on destruction. Where is the Good Shepherd that will fix what is wrong with the world, who will clean up all that is messy and misplaced in our lives?
After reflecting on this, I realized that I was asking to live within the walled-off reality of the sheepfold. The sheepfold was essentially a secure pen in the wilderness constructed of large stones. It kept the sheep safe and guarded by a gatekeeper while the shepherd was away. I’d always assumed the shepherd was leading the flock to safety. Instead, the shepherd arrives to the sheepfold and calls the sheep away from the safety of the walled-off pen. And they follow the shepherd. Not to safety, but to the open wilderness. Because that’s where the shepherd always is. The shepherd isn’t in the sheepfold. The shepherd is beyond its boundaries, beyond the walls, beyond a place of safety and comfort. The shepherd comes to drive out his sheep from safety into pasture where there is abundant life.
Abundant life is not necessarily a safe life. Out beyond the sheep pen, there is most certainly green pasture and still waters, but there are also roaming predators, wolves and bandits. There is also a valley shadowed by death.
We sheepishly say that Jesus simply “brings out all his own” from the sheep pen, but the Greek is so much more interesting. The verb used here is actually the exact same verb gospel writers use to describe the violent casting out of demons. The shepherd casts out his sheep from the safety of the pen. Suddenly, these sheep who have heard the shepherd’s voice are quite literally — out cast.
In the gospel of John’s historical context, this makes sense. Written the latter half of the 1st century and after the destruction of the Temple by Roman military forces, John’s gospel is set amidst an intense conflict within Judaism, which resulted in the expulsion of Jewish-Christians from the synagogue. In other words, like the sheep in the story, early followers of Christ were cast out from the safety of the sheepfold.
So, this text could very well have offered comfort to these outcast Jews who followed Christ by reminding them that Jesus was outside the sheepfold and that all they had to do was continue to follow his voice to find good pasture to restore their souls. Still it must have been terrifying and painful to have to leave the safe sanctuary of the faith of their fathers and mothers. It must have hurt to have the doors of the religious institutions shut in their faces because of their beliefs. It must have been incredibly disorienting to feel like they no longer belonged in the faith that birthed them.
The Good Shepherd is good not because he fixes everything but because he lays down his life for everyone. For those who fit in and those who don’t. For those who stay in the sheep pen and those who are outcast.
I kept coming back to this image of Jesus casting out the sheep from the sheep pen and calling them out to the pasture in the wilderness - about how often in the Gospels Jesus breaks bread with the outcasts and those society considered sinners – and how often Jesus held these outsiders up as examples of profound faith, of how Jesus chose the despised to befriend. I kept thinking about how Jesus says that whenever we see the hungry, the poor, the lonely, the disenfranchised — the outcast — we are seeing Jesus himself.
And then I began to wonder if when we hear the voices of those outcasts in our society, those disenfranchised and marginalized, if we hear that voice for what it is. The voice of Jesus — the voice of the shepherd — calling us out from the safety of the sheepfold to be a flock of the cast-out.
I’m not suggesting we all sell our possessions and give them to the poor, though Jesus does. I’m not suggesting we hold our possessions and money in common so that none among us will be in need, though that’s how Acts says the early church functioned.
I’m not suggesting we need to spend more time among the outcast and marginalized because it makes us good people and better Christians to serve those in need or to lend a helping hand. To do so would miss the point of being cast out of the safety of the sheep pen. The point is not necessarily to do what is right or to help others out. The point is simply to be where the shepherd is. And the shepherd isn’t in the sheep pen.
As Lilla Watson, an aboriginal woman in Australia explained to well-intentioned folk coming to help the outcast there, “If you come here to help me, you are wasting our time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
That is the point. That in some way, this boundary-crossing shepherd is calling us to the idea that our liberation — our salvation — is tied up with the salvation and liberation of all people.
And that is why the shepherd comes to the sheep pen and calls us out into the wild pasture. Because that is where salvation — abundant life — is waiting.