“A Model of Goodness”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
11“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.16I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. (NRSV)
It’s an affirmation all of us have heard in one context or another: “She’s a good woman.” “He’s a good man.” “They’re good kids.” I really like it when someone says to a specific individual, “You’re good people.” When spoken to one person, that folksy phrase affirms not only that person; it affirms that person’s community. It also embraces and welcomes that person and his/her people into the community of the one pronouncing goodness.
Goodness, though, is a relative concept. Different people and groups can have diametrically opposed understandings of goodness. What I consider good, someone else may consider foolish or even bad. Such variances are all-too-evident in today’s world. And while it is truly good to span the gulfs of disagreement, the true goodness of reconciliation and redemption never happens quickly or easily. Such goodness requires that those in conflict surrender to principles and practices that will lead them in ways of reconciliation and redemption. And that takes the leadership of people who have committed themselves to doing good work, to living as agents of goodness, even when they, in their imperfect selves, aren’t always as good as the work they do.
In today’s text, Jesus calls himself the “good shepherd.” And it’s interesting: While the Church has, for millennia, taught that Jesus was “perfect,” according to Mark and Luke, Jesus rejected the goodness label.
Mark and Luke record an encounter Jesus has with a man (traditionally called “the rich young ruler”) who asks, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“Why do you call me good?” says Jesus. “God alone is good.” And look, you know what to do, anyway—follow God’s commandments.
Oh, I do that, says the man.
Then Jesus broadsides the man’s self-assured ego saying, Okay. So, now you lack only one thing. Go, sell everything you have, give it to the poor, and then come and follow me.
The man walks away in distress. He’s too comfortable in his wealth, too secure in his public influence to embrace the kind of deep goodness into which Jesus calls him and desires to lead him. (Mark 10:17ff and Luke 18:18ff)
In John 10, Jesus appears to embrace the label of goodness. Twice he calls himself the “good shepherd.” According to most commentators, though, the word usually translated “good” is better translated as “model.”1 Jesus is the model shepherd. To model something means to enact behaviors consistent with an ideal. Goodness is itself an ideal, a deep and abiding essence.
Now, I’m not saying that Jesus wasn’t good. I’m saying that, according to the text, when Jesus claims to be the “good shepherd,” he declares something very specific. He declares himself trustworthy. He promises to lead by example—by demonstrating justice, righteousness, and love. Like a “good shepherd,” Jesus will lead his followers to green pastures and still waters. He will reconcile them with their enemies. And he will accompany them through every painful, death-shadowed valley.
Returning to the rich young man: As he walks away, we can almost hear him saying to himself, Give up all my comfort, power, and privilege, and actually, physically follow Jesus and live like him? No thank you! I’m no sheep!
We can understand his reluctance, can’t we? As citizens of a nation that consumes far more than its share of the world’s resources, and that has the capacity to exert planet-altering influence, we don’t like to think of ourselves as sheep, either. The steep down-side to privilege and self-determination is the sense of entitlement that comes with those luxuries, and which usually presents as the sin of pride.
In the list of the seven deadly sins, pride is almost universally considered “the original and most serious” sin. It’s regarded as the source of and inspiration for all other sins.2
Those who claim to be leaders but who lead people from a posture of pride, are, according to Jesus, “hired hands.” And hired hands are concerned only for themselves.
Hired hands committed to wealth and power seldom lead. They manipulate and coerce.
Hired hands don’t make contributions to causes or communities. They make investments. They do favors for which they expect favors in return.
Hired hands don’t really make friends. They just make allies for future endeavors.
Averse to real responsibility, hired hands will take credit, but will almost never admit fault.
Because hired hands must win at any cost, reconciliation and redemption are signs of weakness.
And when the chips are down, hired hands abandon the flock. They never learn what it means to save one’s life by losing it.
Prior to the resurrection, Simon Peter was a hired hand. He claimed to follow Jesus, but he refused to accept that Jesus would die. He refused to accept that Jesus should wash the disciples’ feet. And on Friday, in undeniable hired-hand fashion, he denied Jesus three times. After the resurrection, Peter, still brash and flawed, begins to live into a new way of being, a new way of leading the people whom Jesus led. Eventually, Peter himself becomes a model of the “model shepherd.” And according to tradition, he also lays down his life on behalf of the good shepherd and his flock.
One thing that makes the good shepherd truly good is that he recognizes the universality of his flock. “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold,” says Jesus. No single sheep and no one fold can claim exclusive right to the “one shepherd.” The voice known by all sheep, whoever they are, is the good shepherd’s voice—the voice of compassion, justice, community, and peace. And by peace, I mean that wholeness and holiness that come from recognizing the sacredness in all Creation and working to reveal it and preserve it. When we share the peace of Christ with each other, it is that reconciling, redeeming peace we share.
When Jesus says that his sheep hear and know his voice, he affirms our essential nature as creatures made in the image of God. So, he’s saying to each of us, “You’re good people.” He lays claim to and welcomes every one of us.
While Jesus’ voice does comfort us, even more so does it challenge us. It calls us to lay aside our selfish pride and to follow him—completely—in humble and grateful service on behalf of those whose lives are tortured by poverty or oppression, who are tormented with mental and emotional despair, who are burdened with physical pain, and even those who are blinded by hired-hand pride.
Friends, the “good shepherd” knows you and claims you. He claims all of us, because he knows that deep down, beneath all of the suffering and all of the bluster, beats the heart of the Beloved.
May you listen for and hear the shepherd’s voice.
May you model your life after his life and his ways of seeking, evoking, and embracing the goodness in yourself and in those around you.
And in following the good shepherd, may we all be reconciled and redeemed.
1Sarah Heinrich, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Westminster John Knox Press, 2008. p. 451.