“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.” (John 10:27-30 – NRSV)
Sheep were a common sight in the ancient world of Palestine. The relationship between the shepherd and his sheep was a common metaphor for leadership and care – or lack of it. In the Hebrew Scriptures, this metaphor was extended to God. “The Bible’s extensive use of shepherd/flock imagery may be most attributable to Israel’s earliest years of nomadic and seminomadic existence, and to some extent, Ancient Near Eastern sources, but the shepherd life was so general it is difficult to trace common derivations for the use of the symbol.” (J W Vancil, “Sheep, Shepherd” in D. N. Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Vol. 5), Doubleday, 1992, 1189.)
“The traditions of Israel’s life in the desert seem to have given rise to the thought of God as their shepherd, for it is during the early period that he alone is viewed as shepherd and protector (Gen 48:15; 49:24; cf. Deut 26:5–8; Jer 13:17; Mic 7:14). Though God is seldom called a shepherd, the concept was common and remained a favorite idiom throughout Israelite history (cf. Pss 31:4—Eng v 3; 80:2—Eng v 1). God is pictured carrying in his bosom animals which cannot keep up, and mindful of the sheep which have young, he does not overdrive them (Isa 40:11; cf. Gen 33:13; Ps 28:9).
“The symbol was a favorite for depicting the Exodus. In one of Israel’s earliest traditions, the ‘Song of Moses’, the image of God as a shepherd leading the people to safe pastures is implied (Exod 15:13, 17), and later reflection upon this event shows God as a powerful leader driving out other nations and making room for his own flock (Ps 78:52–55, 70–72). A number of passages use the figure to compare the return from Babylonian exile with the Exodus (Jer 23:1–8; 31:8–14; Isa 40:11; 49:9–13). God’s loyalty and devotion to an individual sheep is presented in the classic Shepherd Psalm (23); it is possible, however, that this psalm alludes to the exiled community and is a symbolic expression of their return to Palestine (cf. Isa 49:9–13 and Psalm 121).
“The picture of Israel as a flock given into the hands of butchers (the nations) in Ps 44:12–24—Eng vv 11–23 is a variation on the usual thought of God as Israel’s shepherd, for here the psalmist views God as a sleeping shepherd, unmindful for the welfare of the flock (cf. Isa 56:10, 11); and in Ps 74:1, God is an angry shepherd, casting off his flock.
“As among other ANE peoples, Israel’s leaders were often regarded as shepherds, and even though God was always their principal shepherd, responsible human agents were necessary so that Israel would not be as “sheep without a shepherd” (Num 27:16, 17); and significantly, a charismatic element is said to have rested on such leaders (Num 27:16–21; cf. Isa 11:1–9; 44:28–45:1). God is said to have led the flock Israel through the wilderness by the hand of Moses and Aaron (Ps 77:21—Eng v 20; Isa 63:11). Although no Israelite king is ever directly called by the title “shepherd,” it is implied, since David as prince feeds, or shepherds, Israel (2 Sam 5:2), and when Micaiah predicted the death of Ahab and Israel’s defeat, he said the scattered army would be “as sheep which have no shepherd” (1 Kgs 22:17; 2 Chr 18:16; cf. Num 27:16, 17).
“In the book of Jeremiah the image includes both religious and political figures of varying rank and authority, showing that by the prophet’s time it was a well-established and regular portrait for the ruling nobility (Jer 2:8; 3:15; 10:21; 25:34–38; cf. Ezekiel 34). Even the commanders of the enemy from the north are described as shepherds in a manner reminiscent of Homer’s usage (Jer 6:3; 12:10; cf. 13:20).
“The symbol receives its most extensive treatment in Ezekiel 34. Here the prophet uses the evil shepherd theme to illustrate selfish and irresponsible leadership (vv 2–3), and to rebuke kingship based on domination and crushing oppression: “With force and harshness you ruled them” (v 4), words which echo the cruel period of Egyptian bondage (cf. Exod 1:13–14; Lev 25:43).
“The Persian king Cyrus is anointed as God’s servant and chosen as his shepherd to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple (Isa 44:28; cf. Jer 23:1–8).” (Ibid)
My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me: “Many themes from earlier parts of the Gospel are gathered in these few verses.” (Francis J Moloney, The Gospel of John, The Liturgical Press, 1998, 320) “A believer ‘hears’ (1:41; 3:8, 29; 4:42; 5:24, 28; 6:45; 8:38, 43; 10:3, 16), has ‘eternal life’ (3:15, 16, 36; 4:14, 36; 5:24, 39; 6:27, 40, 47, 54, 68), ‘follows’ Jesus (1:37, 44; 8:12; 10:4, 5), and ‘is not lost’ (3:16; 6:12, 27, 39; 10:10).” (Op cit, 315)
I give them eternal life, and they will never perish: Jesus is clearly taking the metaphor to another level. He says in 10:10 he will give them ‘life to the full’. The language is altered but the message is essentially the same: ‘I give them eternal life’. The ‘full’ life becomes the ‘infinite’ life. What is more this infinite or eternal life is his very own life. Belief in Jesus, on his terms, brings life and no one can take it away because he and the Father are one.
Central to the liturgy of the Word throughout the Easter Season is the disciples’ encounter with Jesus, crucified and risen. This encounter changes everything. The human experience most like this is probably the experience of realizing your deep love for another person. This is not rational, it is trans-rational. It is not a conquest or achievement of will or skill, it is a gift, an experience of grace.
“‘God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them’. (1 Jn 4:16). These words from the First Letter of John express with remarkable clarity the heart of the Christian faith: the Christian image of God and the resulting image of humankind and its destiny. In the same verse, Saint John also offers a kind of summary of the Christian life: ‘We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us’. We have come to believe in God’s love: in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his or her life.” Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” [The opening words of Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical, Deus caritas est.]
This beautiful, liberating and world-changing encounter – with its ‘new horizon’ and ‘decisive direction’ – gets horribly distorted when we focus primarily on what we must do. It is as if God the Father is saying to each of us, every day, everywhere: ‘I am here for you! Let me love you!’
Faith comes from hearing that invitation – see Romans 10:17. Our fulfilment as human beings, the moral life and our happiness come from hearing that – really hearing it – and allowing it to take hold of us.
When we fail to take full account of “the encounter with (the) event, (the) person (of Jesus)” the Christian life tends to become an ego-project, as if being Christian is about “an ethical choice or a lofty idea” that demands discipline and mastery of self as its central theme. It is in fact about being in love – literally, being in love.
We do not earn or win God’s love. God’s love is eternal, infinite, absolute, unconditional and unmerited. There is nothing we can do that will make God love us more or less.
This is not unlike the typical process whereby parents nurture children. Children who are not sure that they are loved may behave themselves but there will be something essential missing. Above all else we want them to know, in the marrow of their bones, that they are loved. All else will flow from that.