I confuse easily. Actually, so do you. If someone abruptly changes topic in the middle of a conversation without warning, they’ll lose us for a few seconds while we scramble to catch up. (Of course, those of us who are hard-of-hearing may think someone’s changed topics when they haven’t.)
So it’s not surprising that even those who were listening to Jesus got confused when they couldn’t follow his train of thought.
As we’ve seen, John 9 gives us the story of an unprecedented and controversial miracle: Jesus healed a man born blind. At the end of that chapter, Jesus speaks of judgment and the blindness of those who think they see — which the Pharisees take as a jab against them.
And then, all of a sudden, Jesus is talking about sheep and shepherds:
“I assure you that whoever doesn’t enter into the sheep pen through the gate but climbs over the wall is a thief and an outlaw. The one who enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The guard at the gate opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. Whenever he has gathered all of his sheep, he goes before them and they follow him, because they know his voice. They won’t follow a stranger but will run away because they don’t know the stranger’s voice.” Those who heard Jesus use this analogy didn’t understand what he was saying. (John 10:1-6, CEB)
In the previous post, I gave a bit of the background that helps us make sense of Jesus’ analogy. His listeners would easily have understood the imagery — but they didn’t understand the application. Huh? What? I thought we were talking about blindness. Why are we talking about sheep?
Jesus, of course, isn’t pulling the shepherd analogy out of thin air. There is plenty of precedent for the image in the Old Testament. David — who in the collective memory of God’s people was the quintessential king and a symbol of the glory days — had been a shepherd, and the metaphor of shepherd-king stuck. Even God was portrayed as the shepherd of his people.
Read, for example, Ezekiel 34. On the one hand, God promises to send them a shepherd-king: “I will appoint for them a single shepherd, and he will feed them. My servant David will feed them. He will be their shepherd” (vs. 23).
On the other hand, God himself takes on the role of shepherd:
I myself will search for my flock and seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out the flock when some in the flock have been scattered, so will I seek out my flock. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered during the time of clouds and thick darkness. I will gather and lead them out from the countries and peoples, and I will bring them to their own fertile land. I will feed them on Israel’s highlands, along the riverbeds, and in all the inhabited places. I will feed them in good pasture, and their sheepfold will be there, on Israel’s lofty highlands. On Israel’s highlands, they will lie down in a secure fold and feed on green pastures. I myself will feed my flock and make them lie down. This is what the Lord God says. (vss. 11-15)
It’s a marvelous image; the chapter ends on the note of rich blessing. God the shepherd will lead his flock to a place where they can pasture in peace and safety.
But the chapter begins as a dire prophecy condemning the false shepherds — the leaders of God’s people who have been taking advantage of them for their own gain:
Doom to Israel’s shepherds who tended themselves! Shouldn’t shepherds tend the flock? You drink the milk, you wear the wool, and you slaughter the fat animals, but you don’t tend the flock. You don’t strengthen the weak, heal the sick, bind up the injured, bring back the strays, or seek out the lost; but instead you use force to rule them with injustice. (vss. 2-4)
Therein lies the continuity: Jesus’ argument with the Pharisees, especially in regards to how they treated the man he had healed of blindness, leads him to think of false shepherds. Those listening are having trouble following the jump.
But as we’ll see, he will explain.