Brief synopsis of the readings: As we continue to walk through the Acts of the Apostles we hear Peter and the Eleven proclaiming the risen Jesus. The audience were “cut to the heart” and asked what they needed to do to be saved. Peter responded by telling them that they must repent and be baptized. “That day about three thousand were added to their number.” In John’s Gospel we hear Jesus talking about shepherds and sheep. Good shepherds enter the sheepfold (the place where the sheep are protected from harm) through the gate while thieves enter another way. But the sheep know the voice of the good shepherd and will only follow him. Jesus then proclaims that he is the gate of the sheepfold. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy while he (Jesus) comes “so that they may have life and have it to the full.”
Other than Costco and Scripture, most of us know little about sheep and shepherds, let alone sheep gates. And that’s unfortunate because while Costco does teach us that lamb is delicious, Scripture gives us a bit of a distorted sense of sheep and shepherds. And while those distortions would have been obvious to Jesus’ audience, history has whitewashed much of it for us.
Matthew 18 and Luke 15 tell us about a shepherd who owns a hundred sheep. One wanders off and he leaves the other ninety nine to search out the lost sheep. It’s a good story but it’s not about a good shepherd. Any shepherd who doesn’t write off his loss will starve to death. While he searches for the one, the other ninety nine will wander off.
Because for all the affection we have for sheep (on our dinner table or not) they are, forgive me, stupid. They are not loveable at all. Shepherds needed the sheep for their livelihood but they didn’t love them any more than a butcher loves his cows.
And so when Jesus spoke about sheep and shepherds his audience would have recognized the absurdity of what he was saying and we can only understand today’s Gospel if we learn what they knew.
Shepherds knew that their lives weren’t easy. Their sheep were valuable not only to them, but also to wolves and thieves. While they may not have loved their sheep they certainly valued them and recognized their needs to protect them.
So when Jesus talks about those who don’t enter by the gate but get “in some other way [and] is a thief,” who is he talking about? OK, this isn’t easy to write about and I appreciate that you may not wish to hear this, but we are the sheep. It doesn’t mean we are stupid (or delicious) but it does call us to recognize who we should follow, who we should see as our leaders.
Jews of Jesus’ time recognized that they needed to follow their leaders but they often followed leaders who didn’t have their best interests at heart. So do we today.
Some leaders are good shepherds and some are bad shepherds. If any reading transcends the two thousand years between their world and ours, it’s this one. Today we find ourselves choosing between leaders who promise us what we want and leaders who know what we need. In the time of Jesus he knew that the Pharisees surrounded him and the Gospels speak to the how they tried to discount him.
I’m proposing that when Jesus spoke about the thieves who didn’t enter through the gate he was talking about them, the Pharisees of his time and ours.
Leaders, religious or not, are called to care for those they lead. Good leaders care deeply about those who they lead and care deeply. They work, hope, and pray that at the end of the day their sheep will be well. They command the respect of those they lead.
Bad leaders care nothing for this. They crave affirmation, not only from those they lead but also their peers and superiors. They care nothing for their sheep and see them only as objects for their own popularity. At the end of the day they care not for the well being of the sheep but only for themselves.
Some of the thieves are charlatans and are obvious: they are those who (for example) use COVID-19 to price gouge, charging high prices for surgical masks. But that doesn’t go far enough in what Jesus spoke of. The Pharisees had great power and enjoyed using it.
Today the thieves speaks about are those leaders who enjoy leadership for the perks it provides them, from a posh lifestyle to the simple pleasure of having power over others. The lead not to serve but to dominate. Instead of commanding respect they crave affirmation.
And they make choices that advance their own agenda instead of serving the sheep.
Earlier I suggested that we need to understand that we are the sheep in the analogy and that causes us to choose the good shepherd. But there are also times when we are called to be the shepherd and this reading should be in the forefront of our minds. As we look back on people we’ve worked for we can all immediately recognize the good leaders. We describe them as people who cheered our successes and did not dismiss us because of our failures. They often led us in ways that we didn’t know we could journey (but they did).
Conversely we recognized those who didn’t. They evaluated us only on our ability to make them look good and cared nothing for our future. They had no idea what our strengths and weaknesses were and were equally blind to their own.
Leading and being led are difficult dances and partly explains why there are so many books on leadership (and why they are almost universally ignored). But we are on a journey to build the Kingdom of God and we need to know about, and center our lives on the sheep gate, on either side of it.
Perhaps we can see the response to COVID-19 through the eyes of the call to leadership.