In Part I of this blog, we looked at the scriptural roots that informed Jesus’ proclamation of the parable of the Good Shepherd. In Part II we look at what Jesus’ announcement means for us today. To re-read the parable, click here.
To hear the Good Shepherd call us by name is an indescribable joy. We might require nothing else of life, only to hear His voice. Yet the Shepherd’s call is linked inextricably to other words of Jesus: “one by one he calls his own sheep and leads them out.” John 10:3 [emphasis added]
For what reason does the Shepherd lead them out? “I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.” John 10:10 (Jerusalem Bible) What is this full life? Jesus’ first words, “I have come . . .” tell us that full life means life in relationship with him.
Full life in relationship with God brings freedom from death. During the exile, when the Jews wondered whether the nation of Israel was dead, God reassured them that He had not forgotten His promises:
Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, O my people; I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord. . . . . Then they shall be my people, and I will be their God. My servant David shall be king over them; and they shall all have one shepherd. . . . I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them . . . . My dwelling place shall be with them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Ezekiel 37:12-27
Ezekiel’s vision of Israel’s resurrection from the valley of dry bones can be seen as a re-enactment of God’s creation of Adam: God calls the people of Israel back to life with His spirit, the breath of life, to live no longer captive, but as free people in an everlasting covenant relationship with God.
In the Good Shepherd parable, Jesus says, “I am the gate.” What is the function of a gate? Compare John 10:9 – “Anyone who enters through me . . . will go freely in and out,” with Ezekiel 34:27 – ”And men will learn that I am God when I break their yoke straps and release them from their captors.” After God freed the Hebrew people from bondage in Egypt their journey toward freedom increasingly became more an inner than an outer journey. Long after they left Egypt their experience as slaves held them captive. They knew what they had been freed from but not what they had been freed for. Similarly, Jesus’ death and resurrection frees us from the bondage of sin and death so we may live in intimate relationship with him, yet we sense that we are not truly free. We don’t live fully with God or with each other. By what are we bound? Do we realize that we are captive? What prevents us from living life to the full?
After announcing the Good Shepherd parable at the Temple, Jesus escapes arrest and goes to the far side of the Jordan. There he hears from Lazarus’ sisters that Lazarus is ill. “Lord, the man you love is ill.” John 11:3 Martha’s and Mary’s words to Jesus echo thoughts many of us struggle with, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died. . . .” John 11:21 Martha then makes a great statement of faith, “but I know that even now, whatever you ask of God, he will grant you.” Jesus answers Martha, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha says, “I know he will rise again at the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus then says to Martha, “I am the resurrection. If anyone believes in me, even though he dies he will live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” John 11:21-6 Do we believe it? What does it mean for us today? What does it mean for those who are alive but not living life to the full as promised by Jesus?
Jesus’ distress at the grief of Mary and the Jews who follow her, his “sigh that came straight from the heart,” and his weeping, show his humanity. John 11:34-5 How much of his distress and grief was for Lazarus and how much was for himself, looking ahead to his own torture and death? The snide remarks of some onlookers echo our own doubts, “He opened the eyes of the blind man, could he not have prevented this man’s death?” John 11:37 Jesus approaches the tomb, still sighing: is he feeling anxiety at this foreshadowing of his own fate?
Jesus “cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, here! Come out!’” John 11:43 Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is calling to Lazarus, his lost sheep; crying out to him, loudly, with emotion, and by name. He calls Lazarus by name and leads him out.
“The dead man came out, his feet and hands bound with bands of stuff and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, let him go free.’” John 11:44 However we are bound and wherever we are held captive, Jesus cries out to each one of us, by name and in a loud voice. Moving hesitantly, fearfully, cloth strips falling away, we stumble blinking into the light. Jesus says, “Unbind her. Let her go free.”
Catechist and Hebrew scholar Sofia Cavalletti, writes that, just as the covenant between God and the people of Israel is the basis of Jewish faith, the relationship between the Good Shepherd and us, his sheep, is the basis of the Christian life. Cavalletti writes:
The religious experience . . . coincides with the most essential vital exigence, in that it is an experience of love. The Good Shepherd “gives his life for his sheep,” and he came so that “they may have life, and have it abundantly”; the parable announces to us a plentitude of love that coincides with a plentitude of life.
Jesus leads us to abundant life in relationship with the Good Shepherd, and, through him, with each other and all humanity. Our task–our calling, if you will– is to heed the call of the Good Shepherd, following in the footsteps of the Jewish people, our elder brothers and sisters in the faith, out of whatever binds us and holds us captive, to freedom in ever-more abundant life and love with Him.