My Dear People,
Jesus declares, “I am the good shepherd” and reveals how to make this life overflowing and abundant. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. We should appreciate how startling this statement is. What shepherd would sacrifice his own life? And yet this is what Jesus says He does for His sheep—for us. Whereas the thief seeks personal gain at the sheep’s expense, the good shepherd does the opposite; he allows himself to be harmed for the sheep’s gain.
This is precisely what makes the shepherd “good.” The Greek translation literally reads “noble shepherd.” This expression captures the heroic and praiseworthy dimensions of Jesus’ action. Jesus makes a free, voluntary gift of His life on the cross, through which his sheep come to receive life in abundance. His self-sacrificial love is the defining standard for all disciples of Jesus, and especially for those appointed to be the shepherds of His flock.
Jesus contrasts the good shepherd with the hired man. Unlike the good shepherd, who “calls his own sheep by name,” the hired man is not a shepherd and his sheep are not his own. His relationship to the flock is mercenary. Thus, the good shepherd and the hired man act differently in face of danger to the flock. The danger comes from the wolf, the typical threat to sheep. The principal opponent of Jesus is the devil; he is “the ruler of this world [who] will be driven out” (12:31) when Jesus lays down his life. Christian tradition has likewise interpreted the wolf (10:12) as the devil, the enemy who seeks the complete ruin of humanity. When confronted with the threat, the hired man abandons the sheep, and the wolf catches and scatters them. The hired man is a self-centered coward who works only for pay and is not concerned for the sheep. The good shepherd, however, is selfless and courageous because he lays down his life for his own sheep.
The personal relationship between the good shepherd and his sheep has mystical depths. Jesus compares the mutual knowing of shepherd and sheep (I know mine and mine know me) to the mutual knowing within God (just as the Father knows me and I know the Father). From all eternity, the Father gives all that He is to the Son (5:26) and “shows Him everything” (5:20). The Son, who alone has seen and knows the Father, does His work in the world; (see Matt 11:25-37). The relationship of Father and son is one of unity (10:30) and eternal love (5:20; 17:24), which is the most radical selfless-giving (3:35; 17:10). Similarly, Jesus knows his disciples in the most personal and intimate way. He will lay down his life for the sheep in an act of perfect love and draw them into communion with Himself and thus with the Father.
Jesus’ disciples include more than His present band. There are other sheep that do not belong to this fold. “Other sheep” refers, in a general way, to later generations of believers (20:29-31), who are in great measure, Gentiles, gathered to the God of Israel through faith in Jesus. Jesus will lead these sheep and, just like the present flock, which listens and follows, these future believers will hear His voice. Before His passion begins, Jesus prays for these future believers: “those who will believe in me through the word, so that they may all be one” (17:20-21). In both John 10 and 17, the end result is the same: the unity of believers gathered together with Jesus, the shepherd (one shepherd) and with each other (one flock).
Jesus says, This is why the Father loves me, because I lay down my life. The point is not that the Father’s love for Jesus is the consequence of Jesus’ giving his life, (as if the Father would not love Him if He did not give His life.) Rather, the self-giving love of Jesus, manifested in His laying down His life for the sheep, illustrates the Father’s love (see 3:16-17). But the cross, in itself, does not constitute the totality of His saving work. Jesus lays down His life in order to take it up again. His self-gift does not end in death but in the glorified life of the resurrection, of which He gives believers a share (6: 39-40).
Jesus’ giving of His life on the cross is a perfect gift: I lay it down. No one forces Jesus into the cross or takes His life from Him. His statement, I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again, refers to God’s sovereign power over life and death, which the Father and the Son both have (5:21-22,26). Since Jesus has the power of God, He has the power to overcome His own death in the resurrection.
Yours in Christ
Fr. Vincent Clemente