When New Testament scholar N.T. Wright discusses today’s passage from John’s Gospel, he opens by talking about the world of business—specifically what a businessman friend said to him:
The trouble with so many business leaders today is that they’re only in it for their own quick profit. Once people were really concerned about making something worthwhile, about building up a business, about looking after their workers. They would hope that their children would carry on the business after them, and go on contributing to the well-being of the local community. Now they don’t care. They can close a factory in one town and open another one a hundred miles away. As long as they get their bonus and share options they don’t worry about anything else.
Wright says that this made him think about what Jesus was saying in John 10, that a true shepherd isn’t in it to make a quick buck, but is more interested in the good of the flock. And you can tell whether a shepherd is genuine or not by what they do in the face of danger: “The false shepherd saves his prospects at the cost of his reputation. The true shepherd shows who he is by being prepared to die for the sheep.”*
When I read what Wright wrote, my first thought was that it was kind of vulgar. Why, after all, do we have to bring business into a discussion of Christ the Good Shepherd? But then my mind began to wander to all those times when somebody in the church or out of it has actually said that we need to run the church more like a business. That everything should be based on results. And results, of course, could only be determined by numbers. I even remember one particular gentleman—a man whose wife was a member of my church but he wasn’t—actually telling me that the pastor’s salary should be based on two things: How much more money the church was bringing in year over year, and how many new members joined. I don’t mean to single this guy out as a bad person. He wasn’t bad and I didn’t see my relationship with him as adversarial. (How could I? I only ever saw him on Christmas Eve and Mother’s Day?) It’s just that I don’t think he understood what the church really was.
That wasn’t the only time I’ve heard it said that churches should be more like businesses, but I suppose it was the crassest example of it. Even more common, of course, is that government should be run like a business. And to this end, we’re told that we need to elect, not statesmen and -women, but businessmen and -women to run our states or our entire country.
This brings us back to N.T. Wright’s friend from the world of business. He observed that his world had been transformed from nurturing a business, taking care of its employees, and contributing to the community in which it was located, to simply making as much money as possible—often at the expense of employees and communities. If this is what business is, then why would we want government run like that? Government exists for the good of the governed, for the common good of communities. It does not exist to make as much profit as possible and then move on to something else.
This is related to the subject at hand, because that’s precisely what the prophet Ezekiel was talking about in our first reading (from ch. 34) this morning. Back then, there was no separation of church and state. The good a ruler did was connected to their faithfulness to God. And those who were the most unfaithful were also the leaders who profited as much as possible from those they governed, who thrived while the common people suffered, who were insulated from adversity while the common folk had to worry about every economic blow that might come their way.
This is also the religious world that Jesus was speaking both to and about. Ezekiel prophesied about a coming Shepherd who would truly love God’s people. And Jesus said he was the Good Shepherd. And how could we tell this? Because the bad shepherd, the mercenary, would cut and run at the first sign of danger. They’d cover their own rear end and abandon the sheep if things started to get bad. The Good Shepherd, however, wouldn’t leave. The Good Shepherd would stay with the sheep, even receiving the blows on their behalf if need be. A truly Good Shepherd would, in the end, die for the sheep if necessary.
We’re so often being led to believe these days that for-profit business should be the model for both church and state. But if you ask me, it’s the exact opposite. The Good Shepherd of the church should be the rôle model for both state and business: Somebody who serves both the least and the greatest, who gives rather than takes, and who sticks around, even when things are bleak.
I want to spend a little bit more time, though, on another part of today’s New Testament lesson, namely verse 16. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. I suppose there might be Christians out there who are disturbed by this verse. But we’re UCC, and we find it profoundly comforting. There are some Christians who truly seem to believe that the only Christians are those who attend their church. They like nice, solid lines dividing them from everybody else. The people on one side of the line are true believers who will spend eternity with God. The people on the other side are condemned as non-believers whose eternity will be spent away from God’s presence.
I’m not sure what such people do with this particular passage, but I’d like for us to look at it in three different ways this morning.
The first way is to believe that Jesus was talking to Israel, and that he was telling them that they were part of his flock, but that there were others outside this particular fold who were to be brought in. Once they’d been brought in, there would be no distinction among them: There would be one flock and one shepherd. Historically, this explanation of this verse is probably the most solid. For we know that this is what happened. There is no longer Jew or Greek, the Apostle Paul said in Galatians (3:28), there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
A second way to look at this verse is in the spirit of what Jesus said, though probably not exactly what he meant. Jesus didn’t establish a bunch of different denominations, but one church. Despite that—or perhaps even because of it—we might also think of these other sheep as people beyond our own understanding of Christianity. We might look around our sanctuary and base our picture of what defines a Christian on what we see in our own worship on Sunday. We’re human, and we can’t help understanding the world from our own experience. But we also know that we’re not the only Christians, and that people who look different and worship differently are also no less Christian than we are. There is one body and one Spirit, Paul also said—this time in Ephesians (4:4-5)—just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism.
And finally, a third way to think about those other sheep: universalism. Many in our own tradition like to think that Jesus not only came for all, but that all people are actually part of his flock. A few years ago, a pastor thought by many to be conservative wrote a book that said something interesting about hell. The pastor’s name is Rob Bell, the book was called Love Wins, and in it, he claims that a truly loving God wouldn’t send anyone to hell. This sent shock waves through much of Christianity, but not through the UCC, where hell isn’t something we ever threaten anybody with.
So I’d like for us to think about these three ways that Jesus’ reference to his other sheep has been interpreted. And let’s think about it not so much theologically, but ethically—that is, not so much what we believe about it, but what we’re going to do about it. And when I think about it that way, I have to call upon myself to admit that no matter whom I encounter, I must think about them as one of Jesus’ other sheep. They may be another kind of Christian, they may be a person from a completely different religion, or they may be a person who doesn’t even believe in God. But if I am a believer, I’m in no position to judge them as being beyond the love of Christ. Once I do that, in fact, I think I’m placing myself beyond that love… or at least above it. For in judging another as being unworthy of it, I am deciding for God what their fate should be.
If Jesus wants our help in shepherding, then let us help love and help feed and help protect the flock. Let’s not spend our energy building fences and locking gates. If Christ must bring other sheep into the fold, then Christ will decide who they are. Our track record at judging who they are not is far from good, so let’s stick to what we can do and leave the rest to God.
—©2018 Sam L. Greening, Jr.
*Tom Wright, John for Everyone, Part One: Chapters 1-10 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002), pp. 151-152.