Click here for the reading: John 10:11-16.
Familiarity breeds contempt. Such is the saying. John 10:11-16 may perhaps be the most familiar passage in the Gospels. And with good reason. It is likely that the preacher who sets out to preach on these great words of our Lord will soon find that he has been here before, time and time again in fact. And while this familiarity may not breed contempt in the emotional sense of resentment, familiarity can breed a sense of boredom.
Nevertheless, the preacher who endures to the end will be saved. There is a good reason why these words of Christ are so beloved and well-known. Jesus identifies Himself with the beloved figure of Psalm 23 and of Ezekiel 34. He is not only the Shepherd, but the Good Shepherd.
A good question to consider is what this goodness consists of? Pastoral scenes of shepherds peacefully leading sheep beside still waters are certainly appropriate. Such calm images give the idea that the goodness of the shepherd is that he gives the sheep good things, which of course Christ does. But John 10 speaks immediately of a danger and a sacrifice. The Good Shepherd does not display his goodness primarily in peaceful times, but in the teeth of a battle.
The goodness of the shepherd comes in that he sacrifices himself, laying down his life on behalf of the sheep. It is worth pondering here how it could be that the shepherd would save the sheep by dying? Wouldn’t that only expose the sheep to graver danger at the onrushing wolf? Clearly something is going on here that exceeds the image of shepherd, flock, and wolf. The preacher who asks this question and finds its answer in the purpose of the cross will be able to identify the true nature of the wolf and of the shepherd’s protection.
A further line of inquiry as to the goodness of the Shepherd is to ask what motivates His sacrifice? Jesus answers this question implicitly at first by contrasting himself with the hired hands. They care nothing for the sheep. By implication He cares everything for them. This implication becomes explicit when He states that He “knows,” his sheep. The knowledge spoken of here rises above mere knowledge of facts about the sheep. It is a knowledge that unites. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us not simply to know more about us, but to know us and that we might know Him. Just as He knows them, so also they know Him. The more this unity between Shepherd and sheep is explored the richer it becomes. St. Paul’s frequent use of, “in Christ,” has its source here and in John’s frequent use of Jesus invitation to “abide in me.” Further reflection on these phrases will give the preacher ample ammunition.
Finally, there is the eschatological promise of the final verse: one flock, one shepherd. What is now believed will one day be seen. What is now being undertaken, the gathering of the flock, will be brought to completion and to consummation. This forward looking promise is especially potent for preaching on during the Easter season. The Good Shepherd has already laid down His life for the sheep, but now that He is risen what is He at work doing? John 10:16 gives the answer.