The evangelist Mark records an interesting exchange between Jesus and a rich young ruler while Jesus is on His way to Jerusalem. (Mk 10:17-18) And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” Notice that Jesus doesn’t view good as simply nice or adequate (as so many of us do today. Good is godly! Good is better than the best! But, what really makes this exchange so interesting are the opening words of our Gospel, which Jesus spoke shortly upon arriving in Jerusalem. (11) I am the good shepherd. Literally, I am The Shepherd, The Good One.
We have heard the words so often that sometimes we don’t pause to reflect upon them as the radically powerful words that they are. So on this Good Shepherd Sunday, let’s do that … let’s pause and ask just what do they mean? “I Am” jumps out (placed as they are as an emphatic part of Jesus’ sentence) as an echo of God’s very name revealed in Exodus. Further, time and again in the Old Testament God compares Himself to a shepherd and Israel to His sheep. And lastly, no one is good but God alone – remember? “I am the Shepherd the good one!” What is Jesus getting at? Is He saying what I think He is saying?
Indeed, He is. He is not just a good leader, another fine example, one trustworthy teacher among many. He is THE Shepherd. A shepherd unlike any other – a model for every other one, the very best of the lot, the perfect one. He is the Good one. But just what is so good this shepherd?
First it must be said that this shepherd, Jesus, is not like so many hired hands who just happen to tend sheep. (12-13) He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.
In stark contrast to hirelings this shepherd is good because He owns the sheep. They are His, He brought them into being. He has invested heavily in them since day one. He is not about to give up on His precious investment. What’s more, it isn’t just about the money, or the returns with this shepherd – unlike the hired hand – He cares everything for the sheep! He knows each one personally, cares for each one individually, He is willing to sacrifice even His own life to protect and guide them! They are not just property … they are like family!
What’s so good about this shepherd? As we read in verse 11: The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. Instead of just not running away, this Good Shepherd is willing to stand and fight for His flock. He is willing to die for them, literally “in the place” of them. Yet that in itself raises an important question … How can it be good for the sheep if the shepherd dies and leaves them alone? Won’t that make them even more vulnerable to the next wolf that comes along? NO! Because He not even death can keep this shepherd, this Good One, from His beloved sheep!
(17-18) For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.”
These words, spoken before the fateful events of Jesus’ passion, ring after His glorious resurrection with a power and wonder that proves His status as the Good One. To come and to die and to rise again. To defeat the great wolves of sin death and the devil by stopping up their slavering jaws once and for all is precisely what this good shepherd Jesus has been authorized and commissioned to do. And it is what He earnestly wants to do … it is 100% voluntary! Further this Jesus, this Good One, has not just the right to do this for His sheep – dying and rising again – but the power to do it!
And yet this shepherd is good, not just because He laid down His life for us, but also because of why he was so willing to do it. As He Himself explains: (14-15) I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. Remember, unlike a hired hand, this shepherd knows His sheep personally. He cares for them deeply. He loves each one individually.
He is so good, because He knows us better than we do. He understands the roots of our thoughts and actions before we even make them. He knows our strengths, and understands our weaknesses. He protects us in our shortcomings, and gives us everything we need, before we even know we need it. And that is why He gave us His own life and death and resurrection. Because we like sheep have gone astray – every one of us. We are hapless and helpless. We are harassed and harangued. And we deserve it. But knowing this didn’t stop Jesus from getting in harms way … in fact, this is what motivated Him to such sacrifice. If that isn’t good, I don’t know what is!
And the goodness of our Lord and shepherd just goes on! 16 And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. What has been so good for us, will not be limited to us. This shepherd is not content while even one ewe lamb wanders lost or afraid. He will go out and gather them ALL in. Every last one. How? The very same way that He gathered you and me into His flock – by having laid down his life for each and every one of them. By beating back sin death and the devil wherever they rear their ugly heads. By knowing where they are and what they need to hear, even before they do! He will bring them in and they will know His goodness just as surely as we do. They will listen to His voice as we proclaim the wonders of our Good Shepherd to them – and where we proclaim His Words there you will find some who will listen to His voice!
So just what is so good about this shepherd Jesus? He conquers the enemies who prowl around looking to scatter and devour us. He leads His flock in unity. He lays down His life for the sheep and takes it back up again for them. His life for theirs, theirs for His. He increases the size of His own flock, and defeats death and hell in the process. And all of this He does by virtue of His authority to forgive sins in His own death and resurrection! This is why we call Him the Shepherd, The Good One, … because No one is good except God alone.