Inspired by John 10:11-18
There are two translation issues in our Gospel reading for today that we have to deal with before anything else. They are issues that drastically change how we read and understand this text. Now, you know me, I’m not one to bore you with a bunch of Greek in my sermons but these just can’t be ignored. OK, here we go. This passage has always been known as The Good Shepherd. Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.” But what if I told you, that’s not the best translation for that phrase!
Theologian R.E. Brown makes a convincing argument, well it’s convincing because he convinced me, that the Greek here shouldn’t be translated as “good shepherd”, but rather, a better translation would be “model” shepherd. Now I’m not going to get into how he got there, not because it’s boring but just because it’s quite lengthy. So Brown reads it this way: “I am the model shepherd. The model shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
Which brings us to our next translation issue! Don’t’ worry, we’ll get back to the model shepherd in a bit, but we have to lay these foundations first. The phrase, “lays down his life” doesn’t necessarily mean to die. We just automatically read it that way because we know that Jesus, the good shepherd, no, excuse me, the model shepherd, died on the cross. So, it makes sense that we would assume that “lays down his life” means that the model shepherd dies. But that’s not what the Greek says. The Greek word for “lays down” simply means to put, to place, to set, or to plant. Not to die! So, a better translation might be, “The model shepherd takes a stand for the sheep” or “The model shepherd stands up for the sheep”, to put it in common vernacular.
So, with these two translation issues hammered out, listen to the passage this way, “I am the model shepherd. The model shepherd takes a stand for the sheep. When the hired hand sees the wolf coming, he leaves the sheep and runs away. That’s because he isn’t the shepherd; the sheep aren’t really his. So the wolf attacks the sheep and scatters them. He’s only a hired hand and the sheep don’t matter to him.
“I am the model shepherd. I know my own sheep and they know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. I take a stand for the sheep. I have other sheep that don’t belong to this sheep pen. I must lead them too. They will listen to my voice and there will be one flock, with one shepherd. “This is why the Father loves me: I take a stand so that I can take it again. No one takes that from me, but I do it because I want to. I have the right to make a stand, and I have the right to do it again. I received this commandment from my Father.”
A very different reading isn’t it? It’s still about a shepherd and the shepherd’s sheep, but instead of being about a good shepherd, it’s about a model shepherd. What was once implicit, us following Jesus’ example, becomes explicit. And now the focus is no longer on dying for the sheep, but on taking a stand for the sheep. Which makes much more logical sense anyway because if you think about it, the death of the shepherd would spell certain doom for rest of the sheep, who would then have no one to protect them.
To be clear though, death is not completely removed from this analogy. Let us not forget the wolf! The way we see the shepherd may have changed, but the wolf is still the wolf. And we all know, the only job of a wolf, in any story, is to attack, to kill. When Jesus speaks of the model shepherd standing up for the sheep, the shepherd does so at great risk, up to the shepherd’s own life.
And what do we know of the model shepherd that we are to emulate? The model shepherd stands up for those who can’t stand up for themselves. Who might that be in our world today? Just take a look at the news. They shouldn’t be hard to find. But I will say this, if where you get your news, is not highlighting those who need our help, then you might want to get your news elsewhere. What else do we know about the model shepherd?
The model shepherd knows the sheep, and the sheep know the model shepherd. Because the model shepherd has made the time, and the effort, to do so. Our offerings go far to help the less fortunate. But I think that’s only half our call. The other half is to be the hands of Christ out in the world. And that work is greatly enriched when make the time and effort to get to know whom we serve, and allow them to get to know us.
And the people that we are called to serve, should be treated as if they were one from our own sheep pen. Because something else we know about the model shepherd from this passage is that the model shepherd has sheep everywhere out in the world. This is not the model shepherd’s only sheep pen—which, I think was just a nice way of saying that we are not as special as we like to think we are. And if Christ feels a responsibility to all those other sheep out there that are not of this pen, then we should probably too. If, we are to take this emulating the model shepherd business seriously.
I want to end though where we began, that Christ is the model shepherd, and we are not. If it weren’t for Christ than none of this would be possible. Jesus, the model shepherd, is the Christ of yesterday, today, and tomorrow. And that’s a claim that none of us little shepherds can make. It all begins and ends with Jesus. Our passage from the Gospel of John ends on a very commanding, powerful note. You can almost see Jesus, straighten his tunic, and stand tall as he says, “I take a stand so that I can take it again. No one takes that from me, but I do it because I want to.” And Jesus always wants to. Jesus never tires of standing up for those who can’t for themselves. Another claim that none of us sheep can make. Our legs get tired of standing. Our feet grow weary of marching. We are not always willing and able to stand up for others. Thankfully, Christ always is. Amen.