Hearing and Seeing the Good Shepherd

With a bewildering shift, John 10 skips three months and interrupts the Good Shepherd Discourse with Jesus fending urgent inquiries as to whether or not he is the Messiah. (“How long will you keep us in suspense?) (Jn. 10: 24) For all of the intensity of asking, the Jews don’t really seem to be asking. Rather, they seem to have made up their minds that Jesus is not the Messiah. (Prophets don’t come from Galilee. Isn’t that obvious? Just look at the scriptures.)

Jesus then returns to the Good Shepherd theme, saying that those hounding him do not believe in him because they are not of his sheep. His sheep, on the other hand, know his voice and follow him. Are the “Jews” ontologically incapable of believing in Jesus? That doesn’t seem possible, but throughout his Gospel, John is showing us how it is possible to become willfully hard of hearing. This raises the question: Are we equally hard of hearing?

Being able to hear Jesus’ voice has to do with a certain amount of openness to Jesus. It isn’t just a case of being open-minded in general, although that can help. There is a special kind of openness that is required here. The ones who hear Jesus’ voice are the ones who respond to the works Jesus does, the works that testify to who and what he is. This whole Good Shepherd passage follows straight on from Jesus’ healing of the man born blind and the long hostile discussion with the Jews that followed. Those who rejected the miracle are the ones who are blind, but those who see the miracle for what it is, can see with the sharpness of the formerly blind man. These are the sheep who know Jesus’ voice and follow him.

What follows is an extraordinary verse that I admit has slipped by me all these years: “What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.” (Jn. 210: 29 For Jesus, the sheep who see his acts of healing and hear his voice are the pearl of great price, the treasure in the field worth selling everything for it, including his life. But what of those who do not hear Jesus’ voice, and what of ourselves if we do not hear it? Does Jesus throw the blind and hard of hearing away? But Jesus says here that nobody can snatch this treasure, each and every one of us, out of his hand. Throughout the Gospel, and especially in the story of Jesus’ healing the man born blind and the Good Shepherd discourses, there has been a sharp division between those who see and hear and those who don’t, suggesting the deaf are doomed. Yet here Jesus gives us a pre-echo of his prayer in chapter seventeen that we all might be one. Here we enter a mystery where we do not take seeing and hearing for granted. If we all are going to be one in Jesus, we must all hear deeply the voices of those around us and seek deeply to speak in ways that can be heard in a healing way. Since Jesus himself is the Forgiving Victim, hearing his voice in the voices of other people includes special attention to the voices of oppressed people, the victims of racism and other social evils, learning to hear that whatever racism we hear and see in our hearts, and any oppression we inflict on others victimizes us as much as it does other victims. It is this deep listening, this deep seeing of God’s will to heal our blindness and deafness that will make us all one.

The Lamb of God is our Shepherd

Ghent_Altarpiece_D_-_Adoration_of_the_Lamb_2We usually understand a shepherd to be one who leads a flock of sheep and protects it from harm. But in Revelation, the author proclaims “the Lamb at the center of the throne” to be the shepherd of the multitude of worshipers from all nations. The worshipers are praising this Lamb whom they follow and the Lamb “will guide them to springs of the water of life.” (Rev. 7: 17) Their white robes have been made white in the blood of this Lamb because the Lamb has lead his followers through the ordeal. This is an odd sort of shepherd since normally it is the job of the shepherd to protect the flock from danger, not lead the flock into it.

In John 10, often referred to as the Good Shepherd Discourse, Jesus claims that he is the true shepherd who protects his sheep, even to the extent of laying his life down for his sheep. (Jn. 10: 11) Jesus is not only the leader, but he is the gateway into the fold, the only gateway safe from thieves who come to destroy. When Jesus says: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me,” (Jn. 10: 27) he is attesting to a much more intimate relationship between himself and the sheep than is usually the case. As the Good Shepherd, Jesus is not just leading us, his flock, externally by walking in front of us, Jesus is leading us from within, speaking in a voice that we learn to hear as quite distinct from bandits and robbers who come to destroy or hired hands who run away when there is danger.

Early in John’s Gospel, John the Baptist points to Jesus and calls him “the Lamb of God.” The reason that the sheep hear their shepherd’s voice and recognize it intimately is because their shepherd is a lamb, one of them. As the Lamb of God, Jesus protects his sheep from being snatched out of his hand. (Jn. 10: 28) But what does the Lamb of God protect the sheep from? We were not protected from bandits and robbers any more than the martyrs in white robes were protected from the ordeal. What the Lamb of God protects us from is being or becoming bandits and robbers. That is, we are protected from being people who shed the blood in which the white robes of the martyrs are washed. Most important, it is precisely by being the Lamb of God that this shepherd does not attack robbers and thieves with the violence they impose on him, but instead he lays down his life, not only for those of us in the sheepfold, but for those who attack him and the flock. This raises the question: In protecting us from becoming bandits and robbers, is Jesus laying down his life to turn those of us who have become bandits and robbers from what we have become? If the Lamb of God died for sinners as St. Paul claimed many times, then that is exactly what he has done and that is why, in following the Lamb of God as our shepherd, we do the same, secure in the sheepfold of our shepherd with the multitudes from every nation.