This is the third in a series of reflections on Jesus’ understanding of what it means for him to be the Good Shepherd (also see “The Origins of Care” and “Pastoral Care and the Knowledge of God”).
When Jesus describes himself as the “good shepherd” in John chapter 10, he does so against the background of the failures of Israel’s leaders. Historically the leaders of God’s people had proved themselves to be self-interested and uncaring (Ezek.34). At the time of Jesus, the Pharisees were also blind leaders (see John 9). God’s people Israel lacked a shepherd who was truly good, who would care for them and care about them.
Jesus anchors his true care, his good shepherding, in God’s care for his people, and in Jesus’ knowledge of his Father God (see earlier reflections mentioned above). A third element in Jesus’ understanding of his ‘good shepherd’ role is that he lays down his life for the sheep (Jn.10:11, 14-18). The image of the shepherd standing between the flock and the wolves is dramatic. It is a life and death situation, and Jesus says he will lay down his life for his sheep. He also speaks tantalisingly of his authority to take up his life again (Jn.10:18).
Jesus’ laying down his life builds on, and fulfils, the grand pattern of atoning sacrifice established in the law of Moses. The sin of the people of Israel is dealt with in the sacrificial death of an unblemished lamb. There can be no doubt that Jesus anticipated his death through this lens. The transgression of the law incurs guilt and justice demands satisfaction; Jesus pays with his life in the place of the guilty. This atoning work is unique to Jesus. He alone is equal to that task.
The question for us as pastoral carers is whether Jesus saw any other significance in laying down his life for the sheep. And consequently, is there a type of sacrifice which Jesus calls his followers in pastoral care to make?
Returning to John 9-10, it is clear that the blindness of the Pharisees towards Jesus is their sin (Jn.9:41). But Jesus de-emphasises sin as a primary category for understanding the case of the man born blind. At that point in his life, it is not sin but the works of God which should be the focus of the disciples’ attention (Jn.9:3). By the work of God, the blind see (even those born blind!) Isaiah’s expected Day of the Lord (Is.29:18) has arrived in the person of Jesus.
But there is a cost to Jesus standing against the Pharisees. They have already agreed to put out of the synagogue those who acknowledged Jesus (Jn.9:22). Being put out of the synagogue would leave Jesus’ followers isolated and vulnerable. This is doubtless what Jesus has in mind when he speaks of the wolves scattering the flock in John 10:12. The Pharisees and religious leaders are the wolves, the danger to the flock. Jesus will oppose these corrupt authorities who divide and scatter his flock. Jesus’ opposition to them will eventually lead to his death at their hands.
Gathering the flock
The chapters that follow in John’s gospel develop this theme of Jesus’ work gathering (rather than scattering) his flock. In chapter 14:1-3 Jesus prepares a place for his followers. It is a gathering place with many rooms. There Jesus’ followers will be together with him. Later in the same chapter (14:23) Jesus promises not only his presence but that of his Father also, “we will come to them and make our home with them.” In chapter 15 the image of the flock is exchanged for the vine, but the idea of being connected together continues. True branches remain in Jesus and bear much fruit. Disconnected (scattered) branches wither and are burned. Remaining in Jesus is parallel to remaining in his love, and this love for one another is both Jesus’ command and the privilege of his friends. Chapter 16 begins and ends with Jesus’ concern about the scattering of his followers. And in chapter 17 Jesus’ pastoral prayer for all believers is that they may be gathered with him where he is (Jn.17:24) so that they may behold his glory. The togetherness of his disciples is also testimony to the wider world of Jesus’ divine authority (Jn.17:23).
It is clear that Jesus’ vision for his people and his understanding of what it means to care for his flock is about them being gathered (not scattered). God’s people belong together. Together the sheep are safe. Together they enjoy the love and blessing of God, they behold his glory, and they testify to the world. The famous image of Jesus the Good Shepherd gently carrying the lost sheep in his arms speaks wonderfully of his care, but we must remember that Jesus is carrying the one back to the ninety-nine, back to the fold!
The cost of care
Building, maintaining and restoring the gatheredness, the connectedness of God’s people is costly. Love for one another does not come easily, naturally or spontaneously. Jesus went out of his way to follow up the man born blind (Jn.9:35). His love for his flock cost him his life. Pastoral care is costly. It involves us giving ourselves.
This call to sacrifice can be misunderstood. We can be no one’s saviour. Our capacity is limited and there is no love in expending all we have so that we no longer have anything left to give. There is a care of self that enables ongoing service without succumbing to mere self-protection.
This giving of self, this sacrifice, is seen in pastoral care when we put aside our own interests and investments for the wellbeing of others. We see it when:
- we recognise the disconnection, scatteredness or aloneness of individuals or groups;
- we focus our attention on the experiences, concerns and needs of others rather than our own;
- we don’t let our personal experiences and expectations determine how others are cared for;
- we own the possibility that others may have insights into Scripture and discipleship which are foreign to us;
- we recognise our limitations and manage our caring activities even when everything within us wants to do more;
- we advocate for changes in our churches that will welcome those who are scattered.
Returning to our earlier question of whether and how pastoral carers might mimic Jesus laying down his life for the sheep, there are three aspects to our response:
- Jesus’ atoning sacrifice is unique, and his is the only life that can purchase redemption.
- Our doing pastoral care is costly, it does involve us giving ourselves for others.
- Our giving ourselves never stands on its own. We are always directing those we care for to the life and care of Jesus and to his gathered people.
May it be so, and thus may many see the glory of God!
Richard was a Baptist minister for over 20 years, is a counsellor in private practice and an independent supervisor of pastors and clergy. His work experience has also included cross-cultural work, community development, suicide prevention, disability service assurance and government funding in the not-for-profit sector. His PhD is in the mental health of men who retire early.