Jesus the Good Shepherd
by the Reverend Noel E. Bordador
“Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them. Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.
“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.
When I listen to the ongoing public discourse about comprehensive immigration reform, I get sad. For a number of years I was once an illegal alien, and so I feel hurt when I hear illegal aliens being scapegoated for our economic problems, for instance, or when they are lumped together as a threat to our national security and public safety. This is not new. One of the saddest chapters in US history occurred almost a hundred fifty years ago when the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 became law. It prohibited the immigration of Chinese for more than half a century. But the exclusion was later extended to other Asians. The Immigration Act of 1917 identified which Asians could immigrate and which ones could not. The National Origins Act of 1924 banned Asian immigration altogether, while immigrants from Europe, Latin America and Africa were not barred. Ironically, even though the Philippines was a colonial possession of the United States, Filipinos were not allowed to immigrate. In another twist of irony, early in the 20th Century, immigration from Latin America was not restricted. How times have changed indeed. Nowadays, the people most targeted are those from south of our border- Latin Americans. And of course, since 9/11, on the watch list are people from countries with an Islamic majority. As of this day, thirty states, and many cities and counties throughout have enacted restrictive and punitive- and some say “unconstitutional” – laws that seem to target not only undocumented but also “legal” immigrants.
When Arizona passed its highly controversial immigration law a year ago, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Schori responded with these words:
There is the biblical charge to love God and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. The alien or foreigner is among the neighbors to be regarded with love and justice. Hebrew Scripture repeatedly directs the faithful to ‘care for the alien and sojourner in your midst…’ You shall love the stranger, for you were also a stranger in the land of Egypt. (quoting Deuteronomy 10:19)…Theological responses to issues of migration are also based on Jesus’ mandate to care for the ‘least of these’- the hungry, thirsty, homeless, sick, unemployed, oppressed and imprisoned…Anyone experiencing those realities is alienated from the state of healed and whole reality that we speak of as the kingdom of God- that ancient prophetic vision of a world of justice and peace often called shalom. Those who experience such alienation are also migrants, sojourners in search of healing and wholeness.”
The Presiding Bishop calls our nation and the entire Church to regard the alien among us- in particular, and most especially the vulnerable undocumented aliens- as deserving of our compassion, and protection.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus refers to himself as a Shepherd of God’s people. For us, Jesus as the Good Shepherd evokes the positive pastoral image of Psalm 23, Jesus as the Lord Shepherd who leads his flock to lush green pastures and still waters. But people in first century Jewish Palestine who heard him call himself the Good Shepherd would have been baffled, perhaps stunned, confused, maybe even scandalized. In Jesus’ time, shepherds were often looked down upon with contempt. Religious law proscribed five types of employment, and one of them was being a shepherd. Shepherd were more despised than tax collectors. They were vilified partly because they were stereotyped as bandits and thieves, often accused of leading their herds into other people’s private lands in order to steal produce. Shepherds were often accused of stealing other people’s sheep to increase their flock. If some of them did do this, they were probably forced to do so because of their extreme poverty. Many of them probably owned their own sheep and land at one time, but were later dispossessed of their livelihood. To survive, they had to hire themselves out to care for the flocks and herds of the urban wealthy elite who were loyal to Rome, the colonial power which governed the Holy Land with brutality. Because shepherds were thought to be a dishonest lot, religious law prohibited people from buying, for example, wool or milk from shepherds on the assumption that they were stolen goods, and so religion deepened the poverty of the shepherds. Shepherds were denied some legal rights. Because they were deemed dishonest, they could not, for instance, hold judicial office, nor be a witness in court. Furthermore, shepherds were also considered religiously unclean because they could not comply with purity laws. Shepherds then were social, political, economic and religious outcasts. That Jesus referred to himself as Shepherd and a good one at that would have sounded quite odd to his audience. Shepherds were, by and large, not “good.” What then was Jesus’ point in calling himself the “Good Shepherd”? I believe that Jesus identified himself with the outcasts, and the victims of political, economic, and religious injustice, the “least of God’s people.” Those who were lowly, he exalted; those who were despised, he honored. Those rejected and cast out, he embraced. This is a message and comfort to those who find themselves in a position of vulnerability, despair and powerlessness- God is with you; Jesus is with you and for you. And the parable of the Good Shepherd is also judgment against those who cause, or perpetrate, and perpetuate injustice on any of God’s children. Take note: God sides with those afflicted by human injustice, and not with the oppressors.
In the Gospel text, Jesus contrasts himself, the Good Shepherd, from the “bad” shepherds. The Good Shepherd does not steal sheep, but “bad” shepherds. The Good Shepherd knows each sheep and calls each by name, and the sheep knows and recognizes the voice of the Good Shepherd; but the “bad” shepherds do not know their sheep, and the sheep do not recognize their voice. Religious law in Jesus' time said that shepherds were not obligated to look for their lost sheep, but the Good Shepherd looks for the lost sheep. When danger arises, the “bad” shepherds ran away and abandoned the sheep. But, the Good Shepherd is ready to die for his sheep to save them. “Bad” shepherds themselves destroy and kill the sheep. But the Good Shepherd came to the world so that the sheep might have life, and have it abundantly.
Now who were these “bad” shepherds who Jesus was speaking of?
Some have noted a great deal of similarity between Jesus’ parable of the Good Shepherd, and the one found in the Hebrew Testament Book of Ezekiel written six hundred years before the time of Jesus. Yahweh, the true Shepherd of Israel commanded the prophet to speak against the “false” shepherds of Israel. The false shepherds were none other than the political (the King, his princes and governors) and the religious leaders (the priests and prophets) who cared only for their own self interest and supported their obscenely lavish lifestyles by exploiting the people of the land, at the expense of the poor and vulnerable, by means of unjust, and violent rule.
The word of the LORD came to me: Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them- to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them…therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord GOD, I am against the shepherds...and I will put a stop to their feeding the sheep; no longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, so that they may not be food for them. (Ezekiel 34: 1-4, 9-10)
In standing with the prophetic tradition, Jesus indicted the political and religious systems of his day for creating conditions of great poverty, massive injustice and violence.
As Christians living in these United States, probably the richest and powerful nation on earth, we see nowadays an ongoing assault on the safety net programs for the poor, the sick and the elderly. There is an assault on healthcare for women, on the civil rights of laborers, and immigrants. The “savings” from these assaults of the vulnerable surely profit the wealthy and powerful elite, the upper class (20% of the population) who controls 85% of the country’s wealth while the bottom 80 % controls only 15%. (In fact, the only thing the bottom 80% controls is 75% of the national debt.) Fifty percent of our national budget is used to fund past and ongoing wars. We are the largest exporter of weapons of mass destruction.
In the face of all of these, we must remind ourselves, of our spiritual duty to identify the injustice in our midst, and to work politically for the reversal of policies that create inhumane conditions of poverty, exploitation and violence here and abroad. We must remind ourselves, in the words of a theologian of mission, the late David Bosch, that
Jesus did not soar off into the heavenly heights but immersed himself into the altogether real circumstances of the poor. The captives, the blind, the oppressed. Today, too, Christ is where the hungry and the sick are, the exploited and the marginalized. The power of the resurrection propels human history toward the end, under the banner “Behold I make things new. Like it’s Lord, the church-in-mission must take sides for life and against death, for justice and against oppression.
(Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, 1991, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books)
We, the sheep, must heed the Shepherd’s voice. Where should we tune our ears to hear the Shepherd's voice? Today’s Gospel tells us that we hear the voice of the Good Shepherd in the voice of the victims of our injustices. Vox victimarum, vox Dei. The voice of the victims is the voice of God. The voice of the victims of injustice is the voice of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts. (Ps 95: 8)- for the salvation of others, for the salvation of our nation, and for the salvation of your souls.
2011 Noel E. Bordador
Noel Bordador is a gay Filipino priest in the Episcopal Diocese of New York.
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