I’ve been taking a slow stroll through John 10, pausing frequently to digest the richness and depth of meaning behind the initial reading. Told at a moment when the Pharisees were in a flurry of tense and defensive tempers, I can imagine how they looked with postures of arms crossed and shoulders hunched in the body language of dissent. Jesus speaks with authority to them, confronting and teaching, challenging and storytelling; using a culturally familiar account of a shepherd, a wolf and a flock of sheep.
Three dogs bound out of the door each morning. One runs to the bushes, searching with great enthusiasm for a rabbit or squirrel to chase. Another ambles up the driveway at her own pace looking for butterflies to hop after. The third waits at the door for her owner to appear, like a permanent attendance taker who wants her paw held. When all three are running at full speed, and in opposite trajectories, it can be challenging to capture their attention and regroup them to move in the same direction again. A slight distraction appears and off they go, scattered across the yard.
Animals grouped into flocks, herds or schools all have their own instinctual response to the presence and attack of a predator. In the case of the sheep in John 10, we are told that the wolf scatters them. If it can take considerable effort to return three happy dogs to one spot, I would imagine it would be very difficult to recall many scared sheep running in terror. Hold that thought for a moment, allow your senses to play a role in taking in the scene. Imagine the vibration in the earth as hooves hit the ground, the stinging smell of adrenaline and dust heavy in the air, hearing the low growl of the wolf and the panicked bleating of the runners. It is a scene of chaos, where on top of it all, the employee who has been hired to care for the sheep decides to make a run for it to find a safer job.
The Pharisees are not happy, they have just been compared to ones who are part of scattering the flock with fear and not protecting them as leaders are called to do. Middle class businessmen, trying to uphold the strictest interpretation of the Old Testament laws and traditions; I can understand why they were perturbed. It is easy to hold onto something that we feel is concrete and correct, something that is safe and steady to guide ourselves and others by. However, when we let tradition become law, become an idol in and of itself, we run a risk of scattering and causing serious wounds.
Standing there insulted, they now hear Jesus telling them that not only is he known by and knows his sheep, but he will gather them to Him. The image takes a drastic change. Instead of creatures running in terror, we are comforted with the true shepherd who does not abandon the sheep in time of trouble and does not bring about predatory attacks, laying down his life for the sheep instead. Just like a big smile appears on my face when I speak to a dear friend whose familiar voice I love to hear, there is comfort for the gathered sheep in hearing the voice of the shepherd, it is not that of a stranger.
Then, Jesus goes one step further. He speaks of more sheep in a different pen who are going to be gathered to him as well. A different pen? More sheep? Where are these sheep coming from? What is he talking about? Can’t you imagine the questions flying through the minds of those listening? They might have drawn two different assumptions. As this was coming on the heels of the man who was just ostracized from the synagogue (and now a large part of his social and spiritual world) due to an act of healing, some might have thought the reference was to him and others like him. Some may have grasped that this could have referenced a group other than the Jews, the gathering of the Gentiles. Thoughts are churning, it is not a comfortable moment to be listening to these words.
In the hindsight of a vast amount of time I still find the thought of scattering and gathering very relevant today. We need to consider if we are part of the scattering or the gathering. Are we so reliant on tradition and social assumptions that we turn out sheep that do not meet our self-imposed prerequisites and niceties? Do we follow employees who run and look for safer jobs when the wolf comes around or the shepherd who will defend his sheep? Are we so caught up in law that we forget the true heart and voice of the law, instead making up our own imprisoning interpretations as we go? The questions can pinch any who look at them honestly. But, after taking that long look, I would encourage us to focus on the ending of this part of John 10, at the second part of verse 16, “… and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.” The gathering is happening – exciting times!
"I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep. he who is not the shepherd, one who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf catches the sheep and scatters them. The hireling flees because he is a hireling and does not care about the sheep. I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own. As the Father knows Me, even so I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd." ~ John 10:11-16