As a life-long resident of large metropolitan areas – growing up just outside of Philadelphia, and then later living in the DC area, Twin Cities, and now the Indianapolis metro area – I can honestly say I’ve never seen a shepherd in action. Sure, in my travels in Latin America and the Middle East I’ve glimpsed shepherds at work, but I’ve never lived alongside shepherds, been regularly exposed to their work, or lived in a community where shepherding imagery infiltrated day-to-day speech. So when Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd” in Sunday’s reading from John 10:11-21, the whole imagery falls somewhat flat for me. I’m not entirely sure what makes for a “good” shepherd versus a “mediocre” shepherd, a “needs improvement” shepherd or an “exceeds expectations” shepherd.
So let me cheat and go to Sunday’s psalm – the beloved Psalm 23. In Psalm 23 we hear the psalmist proclaim that “the Lord is my shepherd.” No qualifications – good, bad, or otherwise. Simply, the Lord is my shepherd. If we look at this psalm as a job description of sorts, then we see that the shepherd provides for the sheep (“I lack nothing,” and “you set a table for me right in front of my enemies”). The shepherd leads the sheep to places of safety, rest, and peace (“he leads me to restful waters,” and “I fear no danger because you are with me.”). The shepherd provides for the nourishment, protection, and care of the sheep.
In last week’s reading from John 10:1-10, we heard about the sheep pen and that Jesus is the gate to the pen. This pen has an image of safety to it, and of community. The shepherd calls the sheep in and out, and they pass through the gate (“I am the gate,” Jesus said in last week’s reading). In this coming Sunday’s reading, however, we hear that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, has “other sheep that don’t belong to this sheep pen.” Jesus here tells us that he seeks to add more to the security and close-knit sense of the sheep pen. But more than that, Jesus tells us that others who are not in the pen are already his. He talks about leading them too, that they listen to his voice and that there will be one flock … but he doesn’t speak of bringing these other sheep into the pen.
Certainly we can push a metaphor too far, but with all of the rich imagery that John uses in writing his Gospel, I think it is helpful to see what he includes in his telling, what he omits. Here, anyway, the lack of any reference to adding more sheep to the pen, and the explicit mention of sheep that are not part of this sheep fold, remind us in the church of God’s love and promise for people who are not part of the our church, or not part of any church, or not even part of the broad Christian faith. God’s love, care, and promise is farther reaching than just our sheep pen, than just our sheepfold, than just our church kin.
The Good Shepherd is one whose promise of love and care, of nurture and peace, extends beyond the boundaries of our faith communities.