John 10:11-18


The good shepherd

Sharing another of my "Tuesday evening reflections" in case it's of interest to anyone:

Today we reflect on John chapter 10 verses 11 to 18, the passage in which Jesus states, “I am the good shepherd”

The images which instantly spring to mind when I hear this statement are of fluffy cotton wool sheep, of idyllic pastoral images with gambolling lambs, of a nineteen seventies Jesus beatifically smiling with sheep at his feet and a lamb around his neck or tucked under one arm. A quick google search of the words good shepherd suggests I am not alone in this!

But rereading the text, these images are pretty distant from the more extended image Jesus describes here. When Jesus describes himself as the good shepherd, it is an altogether more violent and dangerous image. What makes Jesus the good shepherd is not happy days on the hillside in the sunshine: it is his response to threat and danger, to the vicious attack of wild animals. It is an image of self-sacrificial love to the point of death for those weaker, more vulnerable than oneself.

None of the images on the google search show a Jesus mauled to death by wolves. I’m probably quite grateful really. I suspect it would not be a pretty sight. Not dissimilar, in fact, to a scourged and crucified Jesus, another image we often choose to sanitise.

At the time, undoubtedly, Jesus hearers would have instantly understood the shepherding imagery, the wildness and the danger of it, the standing in the face of threat nature of it. But perhaps my own images, informed by children’s farmyard storybooks and stained glass windows is just too far away for it to easily transfer.

Perhaps here and now, I need something different to make sense of what Jesus is trying to say.

I know there is value in repeating the age-old words, but I wonder if there is also a value in seeking out other, fresher, more relevant images to our time and culture. That is after all, often, what Jesus was trying to do with the images he chose so I’m going to assume this particular rewriting isn’t heretical.

So, for what it is worth, I’m going to share the image which came to mind when I started really reflecting on this text: that of the Syrian White Helmets.

In one of the most dangerous places on earth these are they who chose to stay: to stay not in order to fight, but in order to save lives. To stay and not take sides. To stay and dig kids out of the rubble. To stay and patch up the wounds. To stay and rebuild that which others are constantly seeking to destroy.

And yes, in many cases, they have lain down their lives for others. 252 (and counting) have died on duty… many in so-called double-tap airstrikes where warplanes return to the site of an earlier bombing to deliberately target recue workers.

But they have also saved thousands of lives.

Their motto “to save a life is to save all of humanity” carries echoes of another Jesus and sheep story, that of the lost sheep.

Maybe today a middle-eastern Jesus would say not that “I am the good shepherd” but something more like …

“I am among the white helmets, I lay down my life for the children who did not choose to live in a warzone. When they see the warplanes coming, those in the pay of various forces, abandon place and people; turning their eyes away for they have grown bored of this never-ending conflict. Then those from all sides attack the cities, killing and maiming; and scattering the people, where fleeing from danger, they find they are unwelcome where they wash ashore. The others run away because they are motivated only by money and care nothing for these foreign victims. But I am the good shepherd and I lay down my life among them.”

Perhaps this image helps you too in understanding what Jesus is saying of himself and, by extension, what he is calling us to. Perhaps it doesn’t. Perhaps it sparks the idea of finding other images which also help deepen our understanding of this text and its promise of and call towards radical, self-sacrificing love.