This material was first published by Redemptorist Publications
and is included here with their permission.
Very often at the start of an episode of a television drama series there is a brief recap of events that have gone before to remind us what’s been happening and it might be helpful today to do something like that to set the scene for our Gospel reading.
So ‘previously in chapter ten of St John’s Gospel’ Jesus has been talking about the relationship between a shepherd and his sheep, identifying himself in two of his ‘I Am’ sayings as the gate for the sheep and the good shepherd. He describes the characteristics of a good shepherd which enable his sheep to feel safe, secure and cared for and therefore able to live without anxiety or fear.
The Pharisees to whom Jesus is talking would know that in their scriptures the relationship between shepherd and sheep is used as an image to describe the relationship between a king and his people, In Ezekiel, chapter 34, God says that he himself will be a true shepherd to his people who have been neglected, led astray and abused by false shepherds. He also says that he will set up David to be the shepherd, or king, of Israel and of course it was expected that the promised Messiah, would be a descendant of David.
Now it’s the Festival of Dedication, or Hanukkah, when the liberation and re-dedication of the Temple about 150 years earlier is remembered and celebrated. These events took place following a revolution led by Judas Maccabaeus against occupying forces which resulted in Judas becoming king over Israel and founding a dynasty even though he was not a descendant of David.
It’s during this Festival that Jesus talks about being the good shepherd in a land once again occupied by a foreign power, this time the Roman Empire. So we can perhaps understand why there’s a sense of expectation and excitement, tension and suspicion in Jerusalem as people speculate about Jesus, a descendant of King David, being the Messiah, the true king who would overthrow the Roman imposters and regain freedom for the people of Israel.
It’s in this context that the religious leaders put pressure on Jesus to declare categorically whether or not he is the Messiah. It’s not a question with a straight forward answer. He certainly isn’t the sort of Messiah they have in mind and they don’t seem to have understood him at all. So Jesus says that he has already answered them both in what he has been saying and in the things he has done in his Father’s name. He goes back to using the image of a good shepherd whose sheep know him, recognise his voice, trust him and follow him. And as a good shepherd protects his sheep so Jesus says he will keep his people safely in eternal life.
The problem is that these religious leaders don’t recognise the voice of the Good Shepherd, the true Messiah, and they don’t understand his language. This presents a major barrier to honest communication between them and Jesus and in the final section of this chapter they try to stone Jesus and seek to arrest him on charges of blasphemy.
The Pharisees, and people who thought as they did, had a clear picture in their minds of what the longed-for Messiah would be like and what he would do. His voice and the language he used would be about revolution, victory over enemies, power and a triumphant kingship established in this world.
Jesus uses a different language – one of peace and reconciliation, justice tempered with mercy, healing and forgiveness and his kingdom is the kingdom of heaven where God alone rules with love and compassion.
If Jesus is the Good Shepherd then his sheep are the ones who look for tenderness, care, protection and a love that will look for them when they’re lost. They recognise that Jesus offers them these things and so they follow him trusting that he will look after them in a way that no-one else can. They recognise that he offers them eternal life in the kingdom of God.
Our Gospel reading today invites us to think about the voices and the languages that we ourselves understand and use.
Around us are many voices speaking the language of violence, extremism, hatred, jealousy, prejudice and pride. Surely our calling is to use the language of love to reach out to God’s lost sheep who are longing for the care and protection that only our Good Shepherd can provide.
Let us pray to God our Father who tenderly cares for his people and listens when we call out to him with our concerns for all who are in need.
We pray for the church of God reaching out to care for and protect all who are lost and longing to belong to a fellowship of love.
We pray for the leaders of all nations that they may hear and recognise the voice of the Prince of Peace calling for justice and freedom for all who are oppressed.
We pray for ourselves and the communities in which we live, work and worship that we may care for one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.
We pray for all in any kind of distress or pain that they may know that they are held safely in the Father’s hands and nothing can snatch them from him.
Heavenly Father, we are your people and we thank you for your care and protection. Accept these prayers and bring to all for whom we have prayed your blessings of love, joy and peace. We ask this in the name of the one true Shepherd, your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.