“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep. But a hireling, he who is not the shepherd, one who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf catches the sheep and scatters them.”
The wolf is the one in the Gospel for this week that takes the life of the sheep. He is the reason why the Good Shepherd has to die, because he offers his life in place of the sheep, because he cares for them, and because he owns them. If the wolf is eating the shepherd, he cannot eat the sheep.
That’s the imagery going on at the most literal level, which is always the best place to start. But we probed how with John’s Gospel, there’s always more as you get deeper into the text. The Good Shepherd, for instance, feeds the sheep as Moses fed Israel with manna, but His manna is His flesh, which He died to give. So, whereas in the literal reading, the shepherd offers himself up to the wolf to allow the sheep to escape, the deeper reading recognizes the shepherd is offering himself to the wolf to eat…so that the lambs might partake in him as well.
So, there are two ways the shepherd “gives his life” for the sheep. First, in the negative sense, by offering himself up to the wolf. Second, in the positive sense, by offering himself to the sheep.
That being said, we return to the literal reading. The shepherd offers himself to the wolf, who then feasts on him. We could broadly say this is talking about “sin, death, and the devil.” Jesus bore all sins, gave himself over to death, and yielded to the devil’s jaws of hell, all so that He could conquer them for His flock. But I think if we were to single one concept out it would have to be death. What do wolves do to sheep after all? They kill them. The wolf brings death.
So let’s run with that. Death comes to devour the sheep, but Jesus offers Himself in the sheep’s place. So far, so good. But we have some other images feeding the text. How does the hireling – whom we’re saying is the faithless leader of God’s people – see death and run away? How does death “scatter” God’s people?
Now, we might have to get a little metaphorical, but not too much. All we have to do is contemplate how “deathly” are the principles of this world, how faithless pastors cower in the face of them, and how when not properly dealt with by faithful pastors, they indeed do scatter the flock, causing them to run in all directions.
The sexual revolution was a death movement. From the anti-life advent of the pill to abortion, from venereal disease to broken homes, from depression over broken relationships to poverty induced by single-parent homes, all it brings is death in its wake. Yet, how this movement causes the hireling to tremble, to fear speaking out against it lest he appear “judgmental.” And how this movement has caused the sheep to scatter into all sorts of directions.
What could we also say of the other “isms”? Feminism, materialism and consumerism, totalitarianism (communism, fascism, socialism, and progressivism), on and on we could go. Death awaits at the end of each path, sometimes, an awful lot of death! Yet, how the hirelings cower when addressing the issues proposed by each of these movements. And how the sheep scatter in confusion, looking for anyone or anything that will provide protection.
There is only one “ism” in all history that is not deathly, and that is Jesusism. Jesus is the only one to defy the powers of death. Yes, He offered Himself to death, but as St. Peter said Pentecost morning, “it was not possible that He should be held by [death].” Why? Because Jesus is God, and God is eternal life, and eternal life cannot die.
So now, the one who offered Himself to death – defeating it and establishing Himself as eternally life-giving – can offer Himself to the sheep as life.
The Didache, the first extant Christian writing outside of the New Testament, talks about the way of life and the way of death. Jesus and all He teaches is the way of life. All other ways are the way of death.
When Jesus returns, the lamb and the wolf will lie down together. The wolf will be defanged. Or put in the words of Revelation, “Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire.
But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Yes, there is victory for all those who, knowing and confessing themselves to be helpless sheep, simply stick with Jesus, the source of their life. And now, when the wolf (death) comes, only joy awaits, for the Christian shall neither see nor taste death.