... as John tells the story, Jesus tries to salvage the conversation by immediately telling a parable about sheep and gates, about shepherds and bandits, about those with connections versus those who are strangers.
Psalm 23 and John 10:1-11
April 30, 2023
Dr. Todd R. Wright
I am grateful for the lectionary – that three year cycle of scripture readings for each Sunday – grateful, because it nudges me to read and wrestle with and preach passages that I might not have chosen. But, in an attempt to cover a lot of ground, the lectionary swoops in a plucks some stories from their context, leaving them orphaned, and trims other passages into digestible lumps, so sometimes you don’t get the whole feast, just the serving for this Sunday.
I mention all this because the lectionary has decided that today is Shepherd Sunday! So we predictably read the 23rd Psalm and a bit of John 10, where Jesus talks about being a good shepherd. The problem is I fear that we are missing some important connections.
For example, if you pulled out all the chapter headings and verse numbers, you’d be left with a gospel that just rolls on. Sometimes there would be clear breaks, but sometimes one story would bleed into another.
That’s true today – and we miss it – because the verse right before Jesus proclaims “Very truly, I tell you anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate …” was read, as part of the lectionary, on March 19th. That’s six weeks ago! That’s before the joy of Easter … and the trauma of Holy Week … and the excitement of Palm Sunday. Do you even remember the text?
I’ll give you a hint: it was the third of those four long stories from John that started with Nicodemus visiting Jesus at night and ended with Lazarus raised from the dead. Does that help? No?
OK. It was the story of Jesus healing a man who had been born blind.
Do you remember now? No? That’s understandable – Jesus healed lots of people.
Well, the healing involved Jesus spitting on the ground and making mud that he applied to the man’s eyes. Does that jog your memory? Everybody on board? Not sure?
How about this detail? The Pharisees got upset, they questioned everybody, sharp words were exchanged, and eventually the man got thrown out of his synagogue.
Does that help? No? The Pharisees were often prickly, true! But Jesus followed up to make sure the man knew he had been healed by the Messiah, and the man gushed “Lord, I believe!”
Jesus then used his outside voice to say, “I came into this world for judgment, so that those who do not see may see!” And some of the Pharisees overheard and got defensive, sputtering, “Surely we are not blind, are we?”
That how the passage ends, sort of. It seems like an impasse; like Jesus is frustrated with them and they are angry with him, and everyone will just walk away in a huff.
But that’s not truly the end, no matter what the lectionary says!
It’s not the end because, as John tells the story, Jesus tries to salvage the conversation by immediately telling a parable about sheep and gates, about shepherds and bandits, about those with connections versus those who are strangers.
This connection is important. I think Jesus wants the Pharisees to understand, and because they take faith seriously, he uses an image with a rich history in Hebrew scripture to bridge the gap. It would be like talking toilets with plumbers or yellow finches with birders. He’s trying to build common ground, and the theological password is … shepherds.
Psalm 23 has set the stage with its description of God as being like a good shepherd.
Craig Barnes writes about why this was resonant language, for the Pharisees and everyone listening to Jesus: “The Hebrews longed to live with God as sheep live with a shepherd, but their life was hard. [It made them] too afraid to keep believing that this Shepherd was leading them to green pastures, or that goodness and mercy would always follow them. So they frequently rushed down more promising paths toward more manageable gods, which always led them into unmanageable trouble and laments for the salvation of God. Then they would return to worship, where [the] story [of] the churning, disruptive experience of being lost and found, judged, and forgiven, sent away and brought back … was told and retold. It is all a part of the pathos of people who got scared and lost their way, and of the high drama of a God who searches to find his lost sheep.”
The prophets Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Zechariah all contrast that divine shepherd with human leaders, “worthless shepherds,” who neglect, exploit, and scatter the flock.
Jesus knows that the Pharisees worry about him. They think he might be a false prophet. So he draws on language they would have understood to explain what kind of leader he is: a good shepherd, a true shepherd, not some charlatan trying to take advantage of people to make a quick buck.
I think he’s trying to reassure them that he is in it for the right reasons. He will do anything to protect his followers, to nourish them, like a shepherd who brings the sheep under his care into the sheepfold at night and leads them out into green pastures during the day.
But, John says, they did not understand this “figure of speech”. I think the “they” here is not referring to the crowds, but specifically to the Pharisees.
Jesus could have thrown up his hands and stomped away, muttering something about their thick-headedness.
But he didn’t. He tries again. He doubles down.
He nods at their fears and says all those who came before him were thieves and bandits. They are right to have been suspicious. Throughout history and across cultures there have been more than enough people claiming to be god-approved or god-appointed who care nothing for the welfare of those they lead. He is not one of them.
They come to steal and kill and destroy. He has come so that people might have life!
This is not some general promise. He is making a connection to what he has just done.
A thief would have grabbed the coins from the blind man’s begging bowl and run!
A bandit would have smeared mud on the man’s eyes, charged him for it, and laughed all the way to the bank! Better yet, he would have gotten the man’s parents and friends to pay too!
Instead, by healing the man, Jesus shepherded him from his lonely spot on the street corner back into the community.
Karoline Lewis puts it this way: “The man blind from birth is saved from isolation and marginalization. Never again will he wonder where his next meal will be or who will answer his pleas as he sits begging outside the city. He will know the safety and security of community.”
Is Jesus’ effort to connect with the Pharisees successful?
If you read on, John admits the results were mixed. He says the Jews were divided. “Many [said], ‘He has a demon and is out of his mind!’” But others were apparently convinced by what he had to say about shepherds and gates and abundant life. They defended him, “These are not the words of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of a blind man?”
Jesus’ words mean something … but in the end it is his actions that make the connection:
He says, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” and he does. Amen
 “Sheep” by Eli Halpin
 From “Sheep on the run: Psalm 23” in The Christian Century, 2/12/02
 From her commentary on John 10:1-10 for workingpreacher.org, 5/11/14
 See John 10:19-21