4th Sunday of Easter John 10:11-18
The good shepherd discourse, or at least the idea of Jesus as the good shepherd, is one of John’s especially memorable moments that tend to be remembered out of context.
As our passage for this Sunday begins, we learn (and we hear it again and again in these verses) that the goodness of the true shepherd comes at a cost. While the hired hand, who does not care for the sheep because they are not his own, runs away when the wolves come, the shepherd does not. The good shepherd lays down his life. The phrase is repeated five times in these nine verses and suggests a division of the passage into three parts.
The thematic phrase of the passage is repeated in John 10:14 and begins what we might see as a second subsection. This one focuses on the identity of the sheep, which is based on mutuality of knowledge with the shepherd. He knows his own (and loves them, 13:1). And they know him (as in 10:4), as the man born blind, the hero of John 9, comes to know him and to testify to who he is.
The “other sheep” of John 10:16 leave the door open to the readers/hearers of the Gospel and also warn against any kind of exclusive claim on the door-shepherd Jesus. Deciding who is in and who is out is really, this suggests, not the business of the sheep and is a mystery to them. We sheep-folk are told only to cleave to Jesus, to love, and to testify, as Jesus makes explicit in later chapters of John and in upcoming lectionary texts.
The third subsection of the passage (John 10:17-18) draws the Father’s love into the image. The mutuality of knowledge between the Father and the Son has been mirrored in the relationship between the shepherd and the sheep. Now that relationship is further defined as one of love, which will be linked to commandment-keeping here in v. 18 as it will be again in the passages of the next two weeks. The Son is again, v. 17, said to lay down his life, but now he will also take it up again. The thematic phrase is here repeated three times in quick succession. He lays it down in order to take it up. He lays it down of his own accord. He has the authority to lay it down and the authority to take it up.
All of this is framed by references to the Father’s love and the Father’s command, so that the death and resurrection are drawn into the mystery of the unity of the Father and the Son (which will inspire homicidal rage in Jesus’ opponents when he proclaims it in v. 30); the laying down and taking up of life on the part of the good shepherd are an expression not only of immense love and faithfulness toward the sheep but also of love and faithfulness toward the Father-God from whose loving presence he has come to the broken, dangerous, beloved world.