This Sunday, as is the case every Fourth Sunday of Easter, Episcopalians the world over will celebrate “Good Shepherd Sunday.” We will hear the 23rd Psalm for the second time in as many months. Our collect will refer directly to the 11th verse of John chapter 10, and then our lesson will stop short of it at verse 10. My friend Evan Garner, whom I’ve been remiss to link to of late, deals nicely with the difficulty preachers will have trying balance the niceties of Good Shepherd Sunday with the ongoing series of Jesus’ mixed metaphors on Good Sheepgate Sunday. What I’m focused on today is the disconnect between Jesus as the Good Shepherd
and Jesus as the hard-edged preacher that we hear in the first part of John 10 appointed for Good Shepherd Sunday in Year A.
Some context is helpful. John 10 opens just after the healing of the man born blind and the ensuing confrontation with the leaders of the Synagogue. Jesus healed the man with mud and spit on the Sabbath day, which was against the law. The religious leaders took this violation out on the man whom Jesus had healed. Jesus, reasonably, took offense to that and called them to the carpet.
John 9:35-41 35 Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36 He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” 37 Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” 38 He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. 39 Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” 40 Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” 41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.
Our lesson opens immediately after that scene. It seems reasonable to assume that Jesus is still speaking to the Pharisees as he says “Anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.” These are harsh words from Jesus: a blunt description of what he believes is happening in the Second Temple Jewish system. The religious powers-that-be were so in bed with Rome, so focused on rules, and so eager to line their pockets with taxes and sacrifices that they were, in Jesus’ opinion, nothing more than thieves. Worse than that, he calls them robbers, bandits, and insurrectionists, depending on how you would like to translate the Greek. It is the same root used to describe Barabbas, the man who gets released on the Passover instead of Jesus. The same word Mark and Matthew use to describe the men crucified on either side of Jesus. This is not a term used for a common criminal, but for the violent, the depraved, and the treasonous.
We aren’t used to hearing Jesus be this blunt. The way the Lectionary breaks this text up, it seems more palatable that Jesus is speaking into the ether, but he’s not. Jesus is addressing a specific group of people, the religious elite, and calling them violent criminals. Especially on Good Shepherd Sunday, what do we do with this knowledge? How do we react when Jesus gets blunt? Where’s cuddly Jesus with the fluffy sheep when we need him?