Moderation. Balance. How do we live out these admonitions in a world that paints everything in stark extremes of black and white?
Jesus tells a story:
“What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost. Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” (Luke 15:4-7 ESV)
This story is laconic. We are not told why the sheep became lost, only that it repented. From the context, we know that the sheep is loved enough to be pursued at great cost until it is found. This is probably the Bible’s most important lesson in dealing with sinners, even with the color purple. God really does love you, enough to send his only son to die for you.
But, what if the sheep in this story pretended to repent just long enough to be rescued? And when restored to the flock, this sheep danced around bragging about how special it was. Perhaps the sheep then started its own television show where the sheep commended its at-risk, lifestyle and suggested how viewers could join it in becoming special. In our black and white world, craziness like this happens but it is inconsistent with our laconic sheep story where repentance is assumed to be heart-felt and life changing.
The Good Shepherd Context
Luke’s story about the Good Shepherd focuses on God’s attitude about the lost, which we know because he immediately tells two other stories about something lost— a woman who lost a coin (Luke 15:8-10) and a father who almost lost his son (Luke 15:13-32). But Luke wrote like a journalist interviewing eye witnesses to the Gospel stories; he was not himself an eye witness. For an eye-witness to the context of the Good Shepherd, we must turn to John’s Gospel.
Jesus declares himself to be the Good Shepherd in John 10. The context before and after the story of the good shepherd discloses the tension between good and bad shepherds. Sheep recognize good shepherds. The man born blind in John 9 recognizes Jesus and comes to faith. Bad shepherds show up in John 10:19 where Jesus enters into a nasty debate with Jewish leaders.1
So how do we recognize a bad shepherd? We read:
Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? (Ezekiel 34:2)
In Jesus’ context, the bad shepherds in view were the Sadducees who controlled access to the temple and the sacrifices being offered, and the Pharisees who were jealous of Jesus. More generally, the bad shepherds are those “feeding themselves,” earning a paycheck while avoiding unpopular teaching.
The Testing of Abraham
A lot of ink has been spillt over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, but the destruction of the cities is not the focus of passage. The story begins with these words:
The LORD said, Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? (Gen 18:17-18)
Without delving into details about the nature of sin and its appropriate punishment, God wants to know Abraham’s response to his disclosure—this is a test. To put this in a modern context, its like President Truman calling a good friend into his office and telling him that he has decided to use the atomic bomb on Hiroshima—what would you say? In Abraham’s case, he begins a lengthy negotiation (a prayer) over the lives of the people in the cities (Gen 18:23-32).
Curiously, it is God that destroys Sodom and Gomorrah, not Abraham, even though Abraham had ample opportunity. Abraham captured the cities as a prize of war (Gen 14) and later interceded with God not to destroy the cities (Gen 18:20-33). If Abraham is our model of faith, then we are to leave judgment to God and pray for those caught up in sexual sin.
The Ethical Problem
An ethical problem arises when two theological principles come into conflict. On the one hand, we are instructed “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19). Yet, we are also told:
not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler– not even to eat with such a one. (1 Cor 5:11)
Setting aside the finesse of who is and is not a disciple and when, these two admonitions are obviously in conflict.
In this context, the words of Jesus in John 8 seem most appropriate. In addressing the woman caught in adultery, Jesus says:
Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you? She said, No one, Lord. And Jesus said, Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more. (John 8:10-11)
When the Bible teaches something that bothers us, our role as Christians is not to dismiss the biblical teaching, but rather to find creative ways to honor it and bring glory to God.
1 The timing of this debate reinforces the chapter focus on bad shepherds. The healing of the blind man occurred during the feast of Tabernacles (or booths, John 7:1), while the shepherd discussion takes place during the feast of Dedication (Hanukkah; John 10:22). Hanukkah commemorates the re-dedication of the temple by Judas Maccabees in 165 BC. Previously, the Maccabees led a rebellion against the Hellenization of Israel and desecration of the temple by Antiochus Epiphanies, a very bad shepherd! While we might read this chapter in light of Psalm 23 (good shepherd), John’s context suggests that this story is better read in light of Ezekiel 34 (bad shepherd).
Does this phrase, the Holy Catholic Church, mean that we are all Catholic?
The Westminster Confession of faith writes that: “The catholic or universal church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the head.” (PCUSA 1999, 6.140) The universal church includes the elect of the church through the ages, and is invisible in that only God himself knows their identity. The visible church, which we can observe, consists of those elected and those not elected by God. Jesus’ parable of the sower makes this point by talking about wheat and the weeds (tares): “Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” (Matt 13:30)
The elect are holy—set apart—by God for reasons that God alone understands. Catholic means we are united in diversity (catholic with a small “c”); it does not mean that we are all Roman Catholic (Catholic with a big “C”).
The doctrine of election is a necessary condition for the sovereignty of God to have any real meaning. God created us and Christ redeemed us before we were born, which implies that we cannot earn our creation and redemption (Eph 2:1–10). Our total dependence on God for salvation becomes obvious when we truly acknowledge and grieve the sin in our lives. Although our inclination to sin has been passed down from Adam and Eve, we also actively sin for ourselves. It is like our spiritual ancestors chose to live in enemy territory, and we grew up living there speaking the local dialect .
So, none of us have earned our creation or our redemption. The gift of faith is both free and priceless. The mystery of election is that we do not know who is saved or why. Jesus simply said: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” (John 10:27)
Our task is to spread the Good News, to pray for the lost, and to trust that God is good, just, and always honors his promises.
 The effect of this personal sin becomes most obvious when we have children of our own and experience first-hand how our sin and brokenness impacts them.
Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PC USA). 1999. The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)—Part I: Book of Confession. Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly.
Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? (Ezekiel 34:2 ESV).
By Stephen W. Hiemstra
What is your favorite scripture passage?
One of the most beloved scripture passages begins: The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters (Psalm 23:1-2). Another favorite passage is Jesus’ parable about the lost sheep (Luke 15:4-7).
We love stories about good shepherds precisely because we have lots more experience with bad ones. Just think about the current federal government shutdown (2013). Bad shepherds were also the norm in Jesus’ time.
Jesus’ story of the good shepherd pictures three elements: a door, a shepherd, and sheep (John 10:1-6).
The door image here is of a sheep pen with a single entrance gate or door where the sheep belonging to an entire village might be kept at night. The gatekeeper might be a local teenager (v 3).
A good shepherd enters by the door (v 2). Thieves might try to sneak over the fence but the shepherd enters by the front door (v 1). The good shepherd also loves the sheep and they love him. Jesus says: I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep (vv 14-15). Hired shepherds lack this love and run away when wolves attack the sheep (vv 12-13).
Sheep scare easily (v 5). For this reason, Middle Eastern shepherds talk, sing, and play music for their sheep to calm them down and to lead them. Consequently, the sheep do not need to be sorted in the morning—the shepherd just calls their sheep and they come (v 4).
The context before and after the story of the good shepherd discloses the tension between good and bad shepherds. Sheep recognize good shepherds. The man born blind in John 9 recognizes Jesus and comes to faith. Bad shepherds show up in John10:19 where Jesus enters into a nasty debate with Jewish leaders.
The timing of this debate reinforces the chapter focus on bad shepherds. The healing of the blind man occurred during the feast of Tabernacles (or booths, John 7:1), while the shepherd discussion takes place during the feast of Dedication (Hanukkah; v 22). Hanukkah commemorates the re-dedication of the temple by Judas Maccabees in 165 BC. Previously, the Maccabees led a rebellion against the Hellenization of Israel and desecration of the temple by Antiochus Epiphanies—a very bad shepherd! While we might read this chapter in light of Psalm 23 (good shepherd), John’s context suggests that this story is better read in light of Ezekiel 34 (bad shepherd).
We are not to despair being a sheep living in a world of bad shepherds. Jesus says: My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand (vv 27-28).
Our obligation is to follow the good shepherd; our reward is eternal life.
What is your favorite scripture passage? Why?
Many people say Psalm 23 is their favorite scripture passage. What is the image of a shepherd?
What is the image of a shepherd in Ezekiel 34:2?
What image of a shepherd do we see in John 10:1-18?
Three images are given in John 10:1-18: the door, the shepherd, and sheep. What do they refer to?
Who is the gatekeeper? Who is a thief? How are the hired workers different?
What is the context of Jesus’ image of the shepherd? What do we learn from John 9? What about John 10:19-21?
Why does Jesus say: I am the good shepherd? (v 14).
Why is the Feast of Dedication (Hanukkah, v 22) a clue to interpreting this section on shepherds? (Hint: see reflection).
What is the controversy in the verses 22-42? Why do the Jews want to stone Jesus?(v 33)
How does Jesus use the image of the good shepherd in this section? (vv 26-28)
What is the source of our consolation in Christ? (vv 28-30)