Home Homilies Michael Whelan SM, PhD Gospel for Fourth Sunday of Easter (26 April 2015)

Gospel for Fourth Sunday of Easter (26 April 2015)

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.

The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 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. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.” (John 10:11-18 – NRSV)

Introductory notes

The OT background for this Gospel reading is found in Ezekiel 34 & 36, Jeremiah 23 and Psalm 23. (See notes to Third Sunday of Easter (May 11 2014)) We should also note the story told immediately prior to this text – the detailed description of the healing of the man born blind (John 9.) Scholars also note that the text may have a very immediate and concrete context as described in 1 John 2:18-19 & 22-23. There we hear of members of the community leaving because they do not believe that Jesus is the Messiah and they are urging others to leave also.

A. “I am the good shepherd”.The Greek word kalos (καλός) – here translated as “good” – is a rich and complex word.

  1. William Barclay writes: “Kalos is a characteristic NT word to describe a characteristic quality of the Christian life. In the NT kalos occurs no fewer than 100 times.” (William Barclay, New Testament Words, SCM Press, 1964, 151.) Barclay goes on to say that, in Greek usage, “wherever the word is found there is the idea of loveliness, of attractiveness, of graciousness, of that which delights the heart and gives pleasure to the eyes. Further, kalos is the adjective which implies love and admiration. Her citizens who loved her called Athens the beautiful (kalos). …. Still further, although kalos has this essential idea of beauty, it also has the idea of usefulness. …. Kalos in Greek also means beautiful and honourable in the moral sense. …. We may best of all see the meaning of kalos if we contrast it with agathos which is the common Greek word for good. Agathos is that which is practically and morally good; is that which is not only practically and morally good, but that which is also aesthetically good, which is lovely and pleasing to the eye.” (Op cit, 152-154.) Barclay summarizes: “One of the loveliest stories in the NT is the story of the anointing of Jesus’ head by the woman in the house of Simon the leper of Bethany The woman loved Jesus, and this was the only way in which she could show her love. The dull, insensitive, unimaginative spectators criticised her for the reckless extravagance of what she had on. Jesus’ answer was: ‘She hath wrought a good, kalos, work upon me’ (Matthew 26:10; see also Mar 14:6). That incident is the perfect illustration of all that kalos means. It was a demonstration of love; it was the act of a love which knew that only the best it had to give was good enough; it was the act of a love which refused to count the cost. It was the act of a love which set beauty far above mere utility; of a love which knew that giving can never be dictated by the cautious prudentialities of common sense. A deed which is kalos is a deed in which there is enshrined the beauty of love’s extravagance.” (Op cit, 160.)
  2. Barclay then writes of how we might understand the word kalos as it is used specifically in describing Jesus as “the Good Shepherd”: “The shepherd does not look after his sheep with only a cold efficiency. He looks after them with a sacrificial love. When the sheep are in trouble, he does not nicely calculate the risk of helping them; he gives his life for the sheep. He does not give so many hours’ service to the sheep per day, and carefully calculate that he must work so many hours a week. All through the day he watches over them, and all through the night he lies across the opening in the sheepfold so that he is literally the door. Here we have the same idea again. The good shepherd is the shepherd whose service is a lovely and a heroic thing because it is a service, not rendered for pay, but rendered for love.” (Op cit, 160-161.)

B. Implicit in the expression “I am the good shepherd”, there is a strong critique of the religious leaders. Jesus is contrasting himself with those who are not good shepherds. Jesus uses two different metaphors by way of contrast:

  1. The “the wolf snatches them and scatters them”. This metaphor of the “wolf” is used elsewhere, in both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. Typically it is a metaphor for those who should be faithful shepherds but are not. The prophet Ezra, in his eschatological vision, speaks of a “shepherd who leaves the flock in the power of savage wolves” (2 Esdras 5:18); The prophet Zephaniah condemns Jerusalem because “its
    judges are evening wolves” (Zephaniah 3:3); the prophet Ezekiel condemns Israel, saying “Its officials within it are like wolves tearing the prey, shedding blood, destroying lives to get dishonest gain” (Ezekiel 22:27); Matthew speaks of “false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (7:15); Jesus warns the disciples, “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues” (Matthew 10:16-17. Luke 10:3 has a similar text); Paul also warns the Elders in Ephesus, “I know that after I have gone, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock” (Acts 20:29);
  2. The “the hired hand” cannot be trusted. He is not there for love of the “sheep” but for personal gain. He certainly will not lay down his life for the “sheep”. St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430 AD) says that the hireling is “the man who seeks his own glory, not the glory of Christ; the man who does not dare to reprove sinners. You are the hireling; you have seen the wolf coming and fled …. because you held your peace, because you were afraid” (St. Augustine, In Ioann Evang., 46, 8).

C. At the heart of Jesus being “the good shepherd” is his willingness to lay down his life for the sheep. In the context of John’s Gospel, D A Carson observes, the death envisaged is effective, not merely exemplary: “In no case (in John’s Gospel) does this suggest a death with merely exemplary significance; in each case the death envisaged is on behalf of someone else. The shepherd does not die for his sheep to serve as an example, throwing himself off a cliff in a grotesque and futile display while bellowing, ‘See how much I love you!’ No, the assumption is that the sheep are in mortal danger; that in their defence the shepherd loses his life; that by his death they are saved. That, and that alone, is what makes him the good shepherd. He carries a cross, not plastic explosives or an Uzi sub-machine-gun.” (D A Carson, The Gospel According to John, W.B. Eerdmans, 1991, 386-387.) The final verses of our text reiterate Jesus’ intention to lay down his life as a sacrifice for “the sheep”.

D. “I know my own and my own know me.” There are at least two things to note about this statement:

  1. In the first instance, the verb “to know” as used here carries a richer meaning than it does in our culture, dominated as it is by rationalism. Jesus is talking about the awareness that emerges in and is expressive of a relationship. It may be compared to the “knowledge” a husband and wife have developed over the years in in their experience of mutual love. It is an experience of “knowing” we might better call transrational.
  2. In the second instance, Jesus is saying this “knowledge” is mutual. He compares it to the “knowledge” that flows out of and expresses the relationship he has with the Father: “just as the Father knows me and I know the Father”. It prompts us to recall one of the central themes of John’s Gospel expressed in the Greek verb meno (μένω), meaning “to abide” or “make your home” or “remain” and so on. It is perhaps best expressed in John 14 & 15.


When we reflect on the meaning of “good” in this text and the significance of the intimate relationship there is between Jesus and his disciples – like the relationship between Jesus and the Father – the metaphor of “the wolf (who) snatches them and scatters them” is all the more powerful. The “wolf” represents the very antithesis of everything Jesus represents. The “wolf” is the “antichrist”.

This is a powerful and jarring metaphor, one that is not without its dangers. How might we think concretely of the “wolf” in our own lives? Where do we find the “antichrist”?

This line of questioning very easily provokes an exercise in enemy-making and harsh and negative judgements of others who simply do not share our faith. It can also prompt us to become self-centred, perhaps slipping into a siege mentality. Yet it does not have to have such destructive outcomes. It might be useful if we make the focus wider than our being disciples of Jesus, wider even than our being religious, and think of the questions as applying more generally to “evil”, focusing on the ordinary capacity we all have for being “wolves”.

In 1945, in the wake of the horrendous events of the Second World War, especially the concentration camps, Hannah Arendt wrote: “The problem of evil will be the fundamental question of post-war intellectual life in Europe.” (Hannah Arendt, “Nightmare and flight” in Hannah Arendt: Essays in Understanding, 1930-1954, edited by Jerome Kohn, Harcourt Brace & Co, 1994, 134.)

We might even go one step further. Hannah Arendt followed the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem (1961-62) for The New Yorker – Eichmann was executed on May 31 1962. In 1963 she later published her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, (The Viking Press, 1970). Although she only uses the phrase “banality of evil” in the sub-title and in the last sentence of the original book, it is that concept that caught the imagination of readers. In a later Epilogue she writes of Eichmann’s detachment and disconnectedness from the horror of the “final solution” he presided over: “That such remoteness from reality and such thoughtlessness can wreak more havoc than all the evil instincts taken together which, perhaps, are inherent in man – that was, in fact, the lesson one could learn in Jerusalem” (The Viking Press, 1964, 288.). In his Introduction to one edition of this book, Amos Elon sums it up this way: “Evil comes from a failure to think. It defies thought for as soon as thought tries to engage itself with evil and examine the premises and principles from which it originates, it is frustrated because it finds nothing there. That is the banality of evil.” (Penguin Classic, 2006, xiv.)

The “wolf”, the “antichrist”, “evil” …. is not always writ large with horrifying or disgusting features, it does not always look or feel “evil”. It may be hidden in our silence, or waiting to be born of our inaction, enabled by our ordinary carelessness or our unwillingness to engage with what is actually happening. It may lie hidden under our respectability and assumed good intentions. For something like the Holocaust to happen, it requires many ordinary folk, making many ordinary decisions and doing many ordinary things – or ordinary folk not making decisions they ought to make and not doing things they ought to do.

Ironically, the more efficiently this ordinary agenda happens, the more effective will be the evil outcome. A saying attributed to the Irish statesman, Edmund Burke, is insightful: “All that is needed for evil to triumph is for enough good men to do nothing.”

And of course, the ordinary processes of “evil” have their countervailing ordinary processes of “good”. George Eliot reminds us of this in the conclusion to Middlemarch: “the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs”. (George Eliot, Middlemarch, HarperCollins, 2013, 456.)

“I discovered something which I had never confronted before, that there were immense forces of darkness and hatred within my own heart. At particular moments of fatigue or stress, I saw forces of hate rising up inside me, and the capacity to hurt someone who was weak and was provoking me! That, I think, was what caused me the most pain: to discover who I really am, and to realize that maybe I did not want to know who I really was! I did not want to admit all the garbage inside me. And then I had to decide whether I would just continue to pretend that I was okay and throw myself into hyperactivity, projects where I could forget all the garbage and prove to others how good I was. Elitism is the sickness of us all. We all want to be on the winning team. That is the heart of apartheid and every form of racism. The important thing is to become conscious of those forces in us and to work at being liberated from them and to discover that the worst enemy is inside our own hearts not outside!” [Jean Vanier, From Brokenness to Community, Paulist Press, 1992, 19.]