Welcome to Good Shepherd Sunday.
Our scriptures are beautifully comforting, but its language cloaks risky revolutionary tones. In addition to the beautiful language, our distance in place and time from its historical context contributes to the lack of understanding and even recognizing it as such.
Within our time, particularly within the United States, we desire to remove political language and undertones from the scriptures but it often cannot be detached as such. These scriptures were written within the social and political culture of the Greeks and Romans, who presented their kings and emperors as ‘good shepherds’.
At one time, the Israelites were governed by judges, but these judges begun to pervert justice turning from it and towards personal gain. The Israelite people demanded that Samuel appoint, thus anoint, a king to govern, such as the other nations. God, through Samuel, warned that kings are flawed often succumbing to their ambitions for political power, maintaining it through numerous alliances forged in marriages, unjust military and police force, and the hoarding of wealth at the risk of their subjects (1 Samuel 8).
Jesus understood that the emperor, or ‘good shepherd’, embodied a system that did not benefit the majority, especially the vulnerable, for the policy was Pax Romana (or Peace of Rome) which ensured said ‘peace’ through the brutal suppression and retaliation at the mere whisper of social unrest.
Jesus understood, as written in Psalm 23, that ‘good shepherds’ were responsible for providing for the needs, guiding, and safe-guarding their flocks through a journey, whether smooth or bumpy, straight or curvy switchbacks. Jesus, as the Good Shepherd, is ever-present, guiding and comforting us through the most challenging, fearful moments until and beyond our transition from life to death.
Jesus, however, does not refer to himself as the Good Shepherd in this scripture from the Gospel of John but it is implied. Jesus knows, leads, guides, and provides for our needs.
Jesus warns of the thieves and the bandits, perhaps the false shepherds. The language can be a reference to Rome AND armed revolutionaries against Rome, including competing Jewish messianic communities. Thus, Jesus is warning that there are institutions and persons who lead the flock astray, seek to steal the flock, and will do harm to the sheep whether it is oppressive government or false messiahs, prophets, religious leaders, etc.
Instead of the Good Shepherd, Jesus refers to himself as the Gate, which is for the security of the flock. There would be multiple flocks secured by the closed gate in the evening, but during the day it would be open and the shepherd would lead their flock into pasture through the gate. The sheep knew the voice of their shepherd and thus only followed the voice of their own through the gate. However, Jesus is the gate that does not open to pasture alone, but to life and abundance (more accurate translation).
This life and abundance are depicted in our Acts scripture, which might be an overly idealistic portrait of the early Christian community. It is a beautiful depiction of God’s kingdom, a diverse community gathered in worship, fellowship, and daily life that reoriented the ordinary: time, energy, resources, and talents for the sake of God’s work, God’s will, and God’s kingdom to come. This image in Acts 2 is often associated with socialism or a strong welfare state, which reflects the desire of the Triune God for no person to be without their need met. Unfortunately, if this time existed, it was short-lived due to the human condition, our sin of self-centeredness and greed. Thus, we are called to live in community, resisting that sin to hoard beyond our need, and instead sharing the abundance with the less fortunate in need, in order that the ordinary may be reoriented in the merciful, compassionate loving service of the “least of these”.
May we, the flock, follow the voice of Christ alone
into life and shared abundance
for the sake of God’s Work, God’s Will, and
God’s Kingdom to come in, among, through, and even despite us.
Scriptures were 1 Samuel 8; Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 23; and John 10: 1-10.
Originally preached digitally on 3 May 2020 for Trinity Lutheran (Union City, IN).