Hearing the Shepherd’s Voice
Today is “Good Shepherd Sunday. Every year on this fourth Sunday of Easter we hear Jesus’ description of himself as the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep.
The story is told in A Treasury of Jewish Folklore: Stories, Traditions, Legends, Humor, Wisdom and Folk Songs of the Jewish People, Nathan Ausubel, ed. (N. Y.: Crown Books, 1948):
Usually, the orthodox rabbis of Europe boasted distinguished rabbinical genealogies, but Rabbi Yechiel of Ostrowce was an exception. He was the son of a simple baker and he inherited some of the forthright qualities of a man of the people.
Once, when a number of rabbis had gathered at some festivity, each began to boast of his eminent rabbinical ancestors. When Rabbi Yechiel’s turn came, he replied gravely, “In my family, I’m the first eminent ancestor.”
His colleagues were shocked by this display of impudence but said nothing. Immediately after, the rabbis began to expound Torah. Each one was asked to hold forth on a text culled from the sayings of one of his distinguished rabbinical ancestors.
One after another the rabbis delivered their learned dissertations. At last, it came time for Rabbi Yechiel to say something. He arose and said, “My masters, my father was a baker. He taught me that only fresh bread was appetizing and that I must avoid the stale. This can also apply to learning.”
And with that Rabbi Yechiel sat down.
One of the greatest challenges facing us is our ability to discern the Shepherd’s voice amidst all the other voices that clamor for our attention, many of whom claim to speak for God. Those voices are legion, but we do not always recognize how contrary they are to the voice of the Good Shepherd.
For instance, there are many voices that tell us how to grow closer to God: by having a prescribed religious experience, by believing the correct doctrine, by reaching a higher level of knowledge or a higher level of morality.
By contrast, the Good Shepherd tells us that everything depends on belonging to him. Never does our status before God depend on how we feel, or having the right experience, or being free of doubt, or what we accomplish. It depends on one thing only: that we are known by the shepherd: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish” (John 10:28).
The voice of the Good Shepherd is a voice that liberates rather than oppresses. It does not say, “Do this, and then maybe you will be good enough to be one of my sheep.” It says, “You belong to me already. No one can snatch you out of my hand.” Secure in this belonging, we are free to live the abundant life of which Jesus spoke earlier in the chapter: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).
The abundant life of which Jesus speaks is not necessarily about abundance in years, or in wealth, or status, or accomplishments. It is life that is abundant in the love of God made known in Jesus Christ, love that overflows to others (John 13:34-35). It is eternal life because its source is in God who is eternal (17:3), and in Jesus, who is the resurrection and the life (11:25-26).
Jesus the Good Shepherd, Holland writes, does all of this. The authority that the Shepherd claims over us is “to quicken, to dignify and enlarge our faculties by our submission to it.” We hear Jesus’ voice and become one with him — “made over to him, drawn to him by secret kinship”—able to understand his speech, which grows louder and more distinct as we learn how to listen.
Jesus tells the Jews — and us — that the way to gain certainty is not by human ability to stay in charge. Instead of offering answers leading to conceptual control, Jesus offers a relationship. Knowledge of the Shepherd is not to be grasped and mastered like vocabulary lists or calculus rules. Although effort is involved, it is not the kind we expend when we are trying to get a firm hold of things. It is rather the opposite: the effort to grasp is converted into the experience of being grasped.
Amidst all the other voices that evoke fear, make demands, or give advice, the voice of the good shepherd is a voice of promise — a voice that calls us by name and claims us as God’s own. And Jesus promises that no one is able to snatch us out of the Father’s hand.