“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)
This text comes immediately after the statement by Jesus: “I have come so that they may have life and have it to the full” (10:10). This statement names a truth that is at the very heart of the Incarnation: God seeks us out that we might live to our potential as creatures made in the image and likeness of the One who is the Source of all that is Good and True, Beautiful and Unifying! This has given rise to a theological theme more pronounced in Eastern Christianity than Western Christianity – the theme of Theosis or “Divinization”. Thus, St Gregory of Nazianzen writes in the 4th century: “The human being is an animal who has received the vocation to become God”. (St Gregory of Nazianzen, spoke these words when he gave the eulogy at the funeral of his friend, St Basil of Caesarea, in 379. He was actually quoting St Basil himself.)
John uses a well-known metaphor – the shepherd – to indicate Jesus’ place in God’s plan.
good: The Greek word is kalos. William Barclay calls this “the word of winsomeness”: “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; kalos is not only that which is practically and morally good, but that which is also aesthetically good, which is lovely and pleasing to the eye. …. When a thing or person is agathos, it or he is good in the moral and practical sense of the term, and in the result of its or his activity; but kalos adds to the idea of goodness the idea of beauty, of loveliness, of graciousness, of winsomeness. Agathos appeals to the moral sense; but kalos appears also to the eye.” (William Barclay, “KALOS: The Word of Winsomeness”, in W. Barclay, New Testament Words, SCM Press, 1980, 154.)
Barclay sums up: “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 sheep-fold 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. The basic idea in the word kalos is the idea of winsome beauty; and we are bound to see that nothing can be kalos unless it be the product of love. Deeds which are kalos are the outcome of a heart in which love reigns supreme. The outward beauty of the deed springs from the inward magnitude of the love within the heart. There is no English word which fully translates kalos; there is no word which gathers up within itself the beauty, the winsomeness, the attractiveness, the generosity, the usefulness, which are all included in this word.” (William Barclay, William. New Testament Words (William Barclay, op cit, 159.)
Raymond Brown complements Barclay when he says the word kalos could be translated here as “noble”. He writes: “(P)erhaps ‘noble’ would be more exact here and ‘model’ more exact in vs. 14. Greek kalos means ‘beautiful’ in the sense of an ideal or model of perfection; we saw it used in the ‘choice wine’ of 2:10. Philo (De Agric, #6, 10) speaks of a good (agathos) shepherd. There is no absolute distinction between kalos and agathos, but we do think that ‘noble’ or ‘model’ is a more precise translation than ‘good’ for John’s phrase. In the Midrash Rabbah II 2 on Exod 3:1, David who was the great shepherd of the OT is described as yāfeh rōʿeh, literally ‘the handsome shepherd’ (see 1 Sam 16:12).” (R E Brown, The Gospel according to John (I–XII): Introduction, translation, and notes (Vol. 29), New Haven; London: Yale University, 2008, 386.)
shepherd: The metaphor of the shepherd is a rich one in the Israelite tradition. For example: “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).” (J W Vancil, “Sheep, Shepherd”. In D. N. Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Vol. 5), New York: Doubleday, 1992, 1189.)
The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep: The metaphor of “ownership” is a profane image. But it achieves its purpose here. The one who is a “hired hand” will normally not have the same kind of commitment to the sheep as the one who “owns” them and whose livelihood – and whose family’s livelihood – depends on their well-being. The metaphor evokes a gut reaction – “Yes, that’s right!”. The listeners are then better prepared to hear the deep truth that follows: Jesus is like one whose whole existence depends on the well-being of his disciples!
I know my own and my own know me: For the Western mindset, so dominated by rationalism, this statement is difficult to comprehend in the way Jesus would have intended it. The Jewish philosopher, Abraham Joshua Heschel, sums it up: “Geographically and historically Jerusalem and Athens …. are not too far removed from each other. Spiritually they are worlds apart.” (Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism, Straus & Girouox, 1978, 15.) The Western mindset is shaped by rationalism and abstraction. The Semitic mindset – more characteristic of Jesus – is much more experiential and concrete. “I know mine and mine know me” speaks of a lived and living relationship.
I lay down my life: In this brief text there are five references to Jesus “laying down his life”. This expression embodies a revelation that runs like a golden thread throughout John’s Gospel. Ultimately it is summed up in words such as doxa (“glory”) and doxazo (“glorify”). In the conversation with Nicodemus – Chapter 3 – Jesus declares: “so must the Son of Man be lifted up” (3:13). The “laying down” and the “lifting up” are of a piece. The glory of God is manifest in this. This is the ultimate revelation of God who “so loved the world he gave his only Son” (3;16). The concept of glory is introduced right at the beginning of John’s Gospel: “(T)he Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory” (1:14). As the Gospel unfolds, so the centrality of God’s glory being revealed in and through Jesus becomes clearer: “(W)hat should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name” (12:27-28). The footnote in the Jerusalem Bible to John 17:1 – where there is a reiteration of 12:27-28 – observes: “The glory of Son and Father are one, cf 12:28; 13:31”. Finally, Jesus declares on the Cross: “He said, ‘It is finished’” (19:30). The Greek verb, teleō, means “finish”, “complete” or “accomplish”. The mission of the Son in revealing the Father’s love has been accomplished.
Today’s Gospel – John 10:11-18 – three times uses the word “good” to describe Jesus’ manner and presence in the way he “shepherds” his people. The Greek word is kalos. Another, more common, Greek word also translated as “good”, is agathos. While agathos shares the meaning with kalos of being good, kalos carries the extra meaning of also being beautiful, lovely or pleasing to the eye.
We have grown used to the expression, “the good Shepherd”. Maybe the metaphor has lost something of its power through overuse? Maybe it has also lost something of its power to energize and excite us? Try “the beautiful … lovely … gracious Shepherd”. And this is not an idle thought experiment. How we describe Jesus not only has serious implications for how we think of him, it also has serious – and very practical – implications for how we think of ourselves and, in particular, how we think of Christian morality.
The Scripture scholar, William Barclay, describes how the beauty of Jesus’ presence can – indeed should – be manifest in His disciples: “Clearly it is not enough that the Christian life should be good; it must also be attractive. A grim and unlovely goodness is certainly goodness, but it is not ‘Christian’ goodness; for Christian goodness must have a certain loveliness on it. Real Christianity must always attract and never repel. There is such a thing as a hard, austere, unlovely and unlovable goodness, but such a goodness falls far short of the Christian standard. In all our efforts to be good, in all our strivings towards moral holiness, the Christian must never forget the ‘beauty of holiness’.” (William Barclay, “KALOS: The Word of Winsomeness”, in W. Barclay, New Testament Words, SCM Press, 1980, 156.)
Beauty goes hand in hand with goodness and truth. Yes, “there is such a thing as a hard, austere, unlovely and unlovable goodness” but it is not truly Christlike. Such behaviour is more likely to repel people than attract them to the way of Jesus. Maybe Jesus had this in mind when he said to the disciples: “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:11).
Pope Francis refers to this truth when he addresses preachers: “Instead of seeming to impose new obligations, they should appear as people who wish to share their joy, who point to a horizon of beauty and who invite others to a delicious banquet. It is not by proselytizing that the Church grows, but ‘by attraction’” (Evangelii Gaudium, #14). He also reminded catechists of the same truth: “Every form of catechesis would do well to attend to the ‘way of beauty’ (via pulchritudinis). Proclaiming Christ means showing that to believe in and to follow him is not only something right and true, but also something beautiful, capable of filling life with new splendour and profound joy, even in the midst of difficulties” (Evangelii Gaudium, #167).