Summary: A Reflection on John 10, in the African context
The Maasai of East Africa are a very peculiar people. Very often they are known for raiding the neighbouring tribes to take possession of their cattle. From the newspaper accounts one may think that the Maasai are a very violent people. Now, there is a mythical background to why the Maasai raid other tribes that have cows. It is said that, in the beginning when God created the world… He created all the animals, and especially cows. Then He also created man - and the Maasai, of course. Then God entrusted the Maasai with all the cows in the world. Therefore all the cows in the world simply belong to the Maasai. And it is their prerogative to look after them. No other tribe has the duty to look after the cows…!
Sounds rather funny, isn’t it? This is the stupidity of pastoralists all over the world. It is a stupidity that flows from the love of pastoralists for their fold. Yes, it is the folly of the love of the shepherd.
Is it perhaps why God has a soft corner for shepherds throughout the history of Salvation? As we turn the pages of the Old Testament, we see that God has an uncontested predilection for shepherds: Abel, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, prophet Amos…and the list can go on.
You see, God seems to have a predilection for the shepherds, because shepherds do make very dedicated leaders. When it comes to taking care of their flock - their people- they can even put themselves at risk. This is the folly of the love of the shepherd.
John 10 is the Chapter of the Shepherd. Jesus says, “ The sheep that belong to me listen to my voice; I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life…”
Jesus was not the first to use the image of the shepherd. We have the prophets again and again referring to the leaders of Israel as shepherds; they also refer to God as the true shepherd of the people. But even in the civil society this concept of the shepherd was there among kings and rulers, prior to the time of Jesus. In the statues of ancient Egyptian gods and in the images of the pharaohs we find them often holding shepherd’s staff. We could even say that the concept of a leader being a shepherd is as old as the concept of monarchy itself.
But what makes Jesus’ concept of the shepherd unique and peculiar is what we read in John 10. As I see, there are three themes, related to the shepherd, that come out very powerfully in Jn 10. These themes are repeated over and over again in the chapter. And I think, in these themes we see the folly of the love of the shepherd and how that love is the source of our hope.
1. The Shepherd knows the Sheep
“I know my own and my own know me…” (Jn 10:14). “I know them and they follow me.” (Jn 10:27)
Moris West is one of my favourite novelists. In one of his novels by name, Lazarus, he speaks of an imaginary Pope Leo XIV. As a person this Pope is a typical cold, insipid sort of a person. His point of conversion is when he is admitted in the hospital for an open-heart surgery. Now in the hospital he is very much touched by the love of a particular female nurse. One day the nurse challenges the coldness of the pope with these daring words: … “You Bishops, you call yourselves shepherds… but all that you see is a carpet of wool!” (Not individual faces of sheep!)
Thank God, we are not just a carpet of wool for God. We are individuals. Jesus knows us individually, by face, by name… Isn’t it very promising! Hopeful! That, we are not just numbers for God.
In the Hebrew sense, knowing is not a mere intellectual activity. The organ for knowing for the Hebrews, is the heart! In fact, it is the same knowing that is used to describe the relationship between a husband and wife. Yes, Jesus knows us with his heart. He loves us. Isn’t it a source of hope for us?
2. The Shepherd goes after the sheep
The second consoling fact is that our shepherd is one who can take the risk of leaving the 99 and go in search of the one-lost. It is a foolhardy action. Yet He does it because he knows each one by their name. And each one is important to Him.
Through the prophet Ezekiel (34: 11-16) God says, “I myself shall take care of my flock and look after it. … I myself shall pasture my sheep, I myself shall give them rest… I shall look for the lost one, bring back the stray, bandage the injured and make the sick strong.”