The Good Shepherd

The readings for Sunday, May 7, 2017, Fourth Sunday of Easter, Cycle A, are
Acts 2:14a, 36-41; 1 Pater 2:20b-25; and John 10:1-10.

Christians are familiar with the parable of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. It is found in the tenth chapter of the Gospel of John. The first ten verses of chapter ten contain two parables that introduce the Good Shepherd parable.  A parable is a comparison which teaches a lesson. The first little parable speaks of someone who enters the sheepfold not the normal way through the door or gate, but climbs in stealthily over the wall. Such a one cannot be the shepherd, since the shepherd enters the sheep pen openly through the door or gate. There is a guard, a gatekeeper involved. The gatekeeper knows the shepherd. When he sees the shepherd approaching, he throws open the door or gate. The sheep hear the shepherd’s voice. He knows each one of his sheep by name. He calls them and leads them out of the pen. After all the sheep have left the pen, the shepherd walks in front of them. They follow him because they know his voice.

The author of the Gospel adds that those who heard the parable did not understand what Jesus was saying to them. To whom is Jesus speaking? The answer may be in the immediately preceding context. Jesus had just been in conflict with the Pharisees, by which the author of the Gospel means the scribes. The author, in words attributed to Jesus, brands them not only as blind, but guilty of their own blindness.  Most of the scribes (scripture scholars) in the time of Jesus belonged to the Pharisee party. Their differences with Jesus would have been not about the Torah itself, but about interpretations and traditions that grew up around the Torah. The bitterness between Jesus and the scribes in the Gospels is not so much a bitterness of the time of Jesus, but rather the bitterness of the time when the Gospels were composed.
The Gospel of John, just like the other three canonical Gospels, is written in the nineties of the first century to instruct a Christian Community about Jesus and sometimes to guide them against the scribes who attempted to draw them away from the Christian “Way”, as it was called. At the time when John composed his Gospel, the temple was no more. With the destruction of the temple went the power of the priestly  caste. In the time of Jesus the two great pillars of Judaism were Temple and Torah. In John’s time, there was only one pillar left on which Judaism rested — the Torah (the Pentateuch). By extension however the word Torah implied the Prophets and other Writings, such as the Psalms.

Let’s call the two sides Moses-Jews and Jesus-Jews. Each group thought of themselves as the true or genuine Jews. Conflicts arose not only over traditions but especially over converts. We see this in Matthew 23, written ten or more years before the Gospel of John. In that chapter Matthew hurls seven (the perfect number) curses against the scribes. In Matthew’s second curse against his opponents, he writes, “You hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to make one convert, and when he has become a convert, you have made him a twofold son of hell worse than yourselves.” The Ecumenical Movement was not born from the Gospel of Matthew. John is warning his Christian Community against those he (and Matthew and Mark and Luke) considers a danger to perseverance as Christians. We can conclude that when John speaks of thieves and robbers entering the sheepfold, he is talking about the great Jewish scribal teachers and leaders in the last decade of the first century. He warns Christians to beware of those who sneak into the Christian Community, the ones he will later call the wolves among the sheep. Certainly this demonizing of adherents of a form of religion is unattractive, but this feature of organized religion lives on into our own times.

John adds a second parable introductory to the Good Shepherd parable. In this second parable the Johannine Jesus speaks in the first person. “Amen, Amen, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me (the scribes and Pharisees) are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the door. Whoever enters through me will be saved.” In ancient Palestine it was the custom for the shepherd to gather sheep into a low stone-walled enclosure at night. The shepherd himself lay down across the opening as the gate or door, putting his own life in jeopardy to guard the sheep from marauding bears, lions, wolves, thieves. Thus Jesus will say later in the parable of the Good Shepherd, “I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”