Jesus the Good Shepherd
Jesus the Good Shepherd
Ever wonder why priests and ministers are called ‘pastors’? I’ll give you a clue—it is related to the word ‘pasture.’ A pasture is a field, usually open without trees, just grasses. And what do we find in pastures? Usually we find animals grazing. A pastor comes from the Latin ‘pascere’ which is a verb meaning to lead to pasture, grazing, or feeding. The pastor is the person who leads to pasture, thus pastor is an old English and French word for ‘shepherd.’
If you have been doing your daily scripture readings from the Orthodox Christian lectionary, you heard this past Thursday and Friday Jesus talking about sheep and a shepherd. It’s a familiar passage but in my 23 years of priestly ministry I have never given a specific sermon about it because the reading never falls on a Sunday. Let’s listen:
10:1“Most assuredly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door, but climbs up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber. 2But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. 3To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice; and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4And when he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them; and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. 5Yet they will by no means follow a stranger, but will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.”
6Jesus used this illustration, but they did not understand the things which He spoke to them. 7So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8All who came before Me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the gate. Whoever enters by Me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. 11“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. (John 10:1-11)
St. John Chrysostom says the door/gate (Greek = Thyra) is the word of God. So, if someone is trying to lead people in a spiritual way without using the Scriptures and a correct interpretation of them is an imposter. But how can the sheep tell and imposter from the true Shepherd? Jesus says it’s because they recognize his voice. How can we recognize his voice? We can because we are familiar with it. If we are not immersed in the sacred scriptures, the holy gospels and epistles as revealed and shared with us in the life of the Church, we will not be familiar with the voice of Christ. Think about how much we expose ourselves to other voices: hours and hours celebrities, politicians, pundits, gurus, even friends and family members, but we barely even spend a few minutes at the Door of the Good Shepherd each day in personal meditation or an hour each week in the liturgy. How can we recognize His voice?
Before we move to Friday’s passage, there is a passage in between Thursday and Friday that is only read in the Orthodox Church on Feast Days for hierarchs/bishops. It is the same chapter John 10:9-16.
12But a hireling, he who is not the shepherd, one who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf catches the sheep and scatters them. 13The hireling flees because he is a hireling and does not care about the sheep. 14I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own. 15As the Father knows Me, even so I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. 16And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd.
From the previous passage and this one we hear that Jesus knows His flock, He calls them by name. Whether we realize it or not God knows us, all of us and all about each of us. He knows both the good and bad about us. Yet, no matter how far we have fallen into sin, away from God, Jesus the Good Shepherd loves us. He loves us so much that He lays down His life for. He laid it down on the Cross 2,000 years ago to defeat sin and death. And Christ continues to lay down His life in every Eucharistic liturgy. He lays down His life so that we may have eternal life with God in heaven. This passage is selected for hierarchs and bishops who were saints because they, like all bishops and priests serve in the iconic role of shepherd for the flock of the Church. The Apostle Peter explains:
1The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed: 2 Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; 3 nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock; 4and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away. 5Likewise you younger people, submit yourselves to your elders. Yes, all of you be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility, for "God resists the proud, But gives grace to the humble." 1 Peter 5:1-5
In order to receive the gift of life from the one Shepherd, we must be active members of His one flock. As Orthodox Christians, we believe our Church is that one flock. St. Ignatius of Antioch taught, “Be careful to observe a single Eucharist, for there is one Flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup of His Blood that makes us one, and one altar, just as there is one bishop…This is in line with God’s will.” In other words, different flocks with different beliefs is not part of God’s will. One flock implies one single correct belief and practice of God’s preaching and teaching.
Friday’s passage is also from John 10. It is a summation and conclusion of the previous verses.
17For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of My own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.” 19Therefore there was a division again among the Jews because of these sayings. 20And many of them said, “He has a demon and is mad. Why do you listen to Him?” 21Others said, “These are not the words of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?” 22Now it was the Feast of Dedication in Jerusalem, and it was winter. 23And Jesus walked in the temple, in Solomon’s porch. 24Then the Jews surrounded Him and said to Him, “How long do You keep us in doubt? If You are the Christ, tell us plainly.” 25Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in My Father’s name testify to Me; 26but you do not believe, because you do not belong to My sheep. 27My sheep hear My voice. I know them, and they follow Me. 28I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of My hand.
The door of true teaching from the one Good Shepherd requires a response on our part: to believe and follow. It requires our free will to participate in the will of God. It’s not forced nor is it automatic. Thus, it implies that we can be like some of the Jews, whom Jesus told but yet they did not believe. My brothers and sisters, do we hear the voice of the Good Shepherd? Do we recognize His voice? Do we trust Him and obediently follow Him? In today’s Gospel from John 9, we learned about Jesus healing the man born blind. After being healed, the man was cast out by the unbelieving scribes and Pharisees because he would not condemn Christ for healing on the Sabbath.
35Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when He found him, He said, "Do you believe in the Son of Man?" 36He answered, "And who is He, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in Him." 37Jesus said to him, "You have seen Him, and the One speaking with you is He." 38He said, "Lord, I believe." And he worshiped Him. Amen!