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Together, Apart: Bible Study. The Good Shepherd

Updated: May 9

This is the fifth of our Bible Studies to explore together, apart, with God, as Coronavirus keeps us from gathering in person. You can leave comments on our Facebook page @FlitwickChurch and join in the conversation.

The Good Shepherd – Jesus MAFA

John 10: 1 - 11

‘Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.’ Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.

So again Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.


Ways to explore the passage

Choose the one or two ways of exploring the passage that feel best for you, or try all four – but not at the same time!


Introduction

The image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is perhaps one of those we turn to most often. In art, song and our imaginations, even in mosaic beside our altar at St Peter and St Paul’s. When an image is so common it becomes comforting, worn smooth by use; think about ‘The Lord’s my Shepherd’ sung to the traditional Crimmond tune or the more recent setting by Stuart Townend, and all sorts of memories and emotions are likely to come flooding back from weddings, funerals or innumerable other services.


Those songs are of course settings of Psalm 23 rather than John 10, and that gives us a clue to the background of the image. ‘The Good Shepherd’ is not a idea new to Jesus’ first listeners. As well as Psalm 23, God is pictured as a good shepherd in the Old Testament by the prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah. God also uses human ‘Good Shepherds’ to guide and care for his people; think about the great King David, who started his career as as shepherd bot our among his father’s flocks. By claiming in John 10:11 ‘I am the good shepherd,” Jesus is not describing just his pastoral care for God’s people, he is illuminating something about his own relationship with God and the wider purpose of his ministry.


Whereas John uses the image of the Good Shepherd as one of Jesus’ great “I am” statements, the same image appears in Luke and Matthew as the parable of the Lost Sheep, and in Mark as a passing image of the people as being like sheep without a shepherd. It seems likely, then, that this was an image to which Jesus himself returned again and again, and which had a profound resonance with those who heard him speak.

No read this passage again, John’s version of this well-worn image. What words spring out at you? What do you notice that maybe you have never noticed before? What seems strange? What don’t you understand? What comforts you? What questions do you have?


You might like to write your thoughts down in a journal and come back to them or share them with the online group.


Meditation

Sit in a comfortable position and take your time on each step. This might take several minutes. Now read the passage again. Close your eyes and enter the scene. Imagine yourself out on the semi-arid hillside of Judea, surrounded by scrubby bushes and straggly sheep.


What can you see? Is it day or night? What can you smell here, surrounded by animals? What can you hear? Noises of nature, of the sheep, the wind? What can you feel? What is the soil like, the plants, the animals themselves? Take time to enter that landscape your imaginations.


Now a figure arrives in the scene, a shepherd. What do they look like? What are they wearing? What if anything do they carry? Are they neat or dishevelled? The sort of person you’d move towards or try to keep away from?


Out here on the hillside there is much to fear. What frightens you today? What fears do you bear? Sit with the shepherd and tell him. What do you want to say to him? What would you ask him? Look at his face as you speak. What do you see?


What does the Shepherd say? Do his answers comfort or unsettle? Or both?


With the sheep, you move into the safety of the sheep fold and the Shepherd lays himself in the gap, his body acting as the door. How does that feel? What if anything would you like to say?


What might you want to do as a result of this encounter?


You might like to write your thoughts down in a journal and come back to them, or share them with the online group.

Thoughts and Questions

If Jesus is the Good Shepherd, we are like his sheep. How that is not necessarily a positive, flattering simile. Sheep were incredibly important to the Shepherd; he would lay down his life to protect them. But sheep are not known as animals with the greatest abilities or instincts.

  • Sheep aren't the smartest, but they aren't completely stupid. University research found that they are good at recognising faces and voices. But they tend to do apparently daft things; they will fall into a bog or river, need to be rescued, and the next day go and do it all again.

  • Sheep have poor eyesight but excellent hearing. So they tend to just mindlessly follow the one in front of them. If the one in front goes left, so will the one behind. If the one in front jumps, so will the one behind.

  • Sheep can often be stubborn. They can stamp their feet and refuse to budge.

  • Sheep are mostly docile but can use their solid little body and heads to butt to surprising effect when they are roused. Youtube has some pretty funny angry sheep videos like this.

  • Sheep, being grazing animals, are timid by nature and normally want to stick together in a flock for protection.

  • Sheep are mostly defenceless. They normally can't outrun their enemies and have little to fight back with (apart from ramming) so are dependent on others for protection.

  • Sheep tend to wander and get lost. As Isaiah says, they often go astray. They wander and forget the way home.

In what ways are you like a sheep? Which of these behaviours resonate when we see the behaviours of those around us? Given these sheep-like behaviours, what do we need from a Shepherd? What would make a shepherd ‘good’?


You might like to write your thoughts down in a journal and come back to them, or share them with the online group.

The Good Shepherd Jesus MAFA

So often images of the Good Shepherd are very sanitised. I think especially of depictions from the Victorian era, with a neatly groomed, blond haired Jesus glowing gently and gently bearing a snow white lamb on his shoulders.


The first century hearers of Jesus’ teaching would not have had that image at all. The word shepherd would have brought to mind a tough group of individuals, herding their animals away from home for long periods of time. Unable to wash and therefore unable to be ritually, religiously ‘clean’, they were outside normal society. And they were tough, able to stand up to predators and fend for themselves as well as their sheep. Far from well groomed, they would have been smelly, unkept and a little bit dangerous.


This African image of the Good Shepherd is very different from the one we might unconsciously hold in our minds. For a start, we get a great deal more of the landscape in which the flocks are grazing. Herding is a way of producing food from otherwise unproductive land, and the shepherd in Israel would have moved the herd from place to place to feed on sparse vegetation, as do African herders today. A long way from the lush green sheep fields of Wales!


Have a look at the picture. Where is the evidence for what these sheep might eat? What does this tell you about the shepherd’s care?


Have a look at the figure of the shepherd himself. What does his posture and demeanor tell you? Where is he in relation to the flock? How closely are the flock gathered? What things might this tell us about the Good Shepherd?


The shepherd is wearing a red garment that stand out in the picture but is not the beautifully printed fabric of traditional clothing in Cameroon, where this painting comes from. The Good Shepherd is therefore not depicted as a high-status person. The choice of colour is interesting, though. For me it brings to mind the blood of the ‘pascal lamb.’ Jesus is at the same time both Shepherd and slaughtered lamb. What difference does this make to our image of Jesus and the Good Shepherd?


What else do you notice about the picture? Does it help you to come afresh to the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd? Or not?


You might like to write your thoughts down in a journal and come back to them or share them with the online group.

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