This is what the lectionary does sometimes. After three Sundays of slow pitches for preachers—Easter Sunday, “Doubting” Thomas, and Emmaus—this Sunday’s assigned readings leave me cold. It’s Good Shepherd Sunday (Jn. 10:1-10).
For one thing, the metaphor of the Good Shepherd doesn’t do anything for me. Shepherds are just not part of my experience so the comparison just doesn’t speak clearly to me. I know that shepherding is a long-standing Hebrew metaphor for leadership. They knew what a sheepfold was. They could picture the gate Jesus spoke about and knew what the gatekeeper did. I, though, don’t get it. I feel a little better that John tells us the people listening to Jesus didn’t get it, either (v. 6).
The thing about this particular metaphor that worries me, though, is the over-extension of it. It is not a big leap from Jesus as shepherd to his followers as sheep. It would be a reading that would be deeply disturbing and, I think, not spiritually healthy at all.
Of course, this would be an interpretation that moves from metaphor to simile, but perhaps that’s too fine a point. The comparison, if a justified interpretation, would be at best unflattering, but what concerns me is what it may encourage. If it is taken to encourage unthinking and uncritical following of anyone, even Jesus, that’s both dangerous and scary. Surely Jesus is not advocating that it is a good thing for us to behave like sheep—mindless animals following along uncritically and, well, sheepishly.
Now, let me be clear. I don’t think Jesus was actually saying that. The teaching about the Good Shepherd actually doesn’t suggest that. Maybe it’s subtle, but the sheep Jesus describes exercise at least some form of critical judgment even if it’s nothing more than distinguishing between the shepherd’s voice and a stranger’s. Even for sheep, at least as Jesus describes them, trust is not conferred without some exercise of discernment.
In fact, what I wonder is if Jesus’ comparison of himself to a shepherd was intended precisely to jar us into thinking through the implications of the sheep comparison. Maybe Jesus’ use of metaphor here has a similar function to his use of parables on many occasions, to make those who heard him think things through for themselves. Since Jesus’ original hearers, who probably would have been able to connect to the shepherd imagery much more easily than I, still didn’t get it, maybe what they were failing to get was the intended jarring reference to the sheep. May Jesus was, after all, trying to encourage them to think critically.
Maybe that’s the difference between the Good Shepherd on the one hand and what Jesus calls thieves and bandits on the other. Maybe that’s the difference between Jesus and, say, Jim Jones. The Good Shepherd is the one who wants the sheep to think for themselves. A good shepherd would find nothing threatening in that.