“Riddle” is another way of translating the Greek word used for “parable” in the Bible. And rarely does this word fit the bill as well as it does in John 10: 1–30. This is where the good shepherd is at home, and with Him a whole tangle of parables.
There is the good shepherd (Jesus) who enters the sheepfold by the door (also Jesus). There are the thieves and robbers (the Pharisees) who climb in some other way, and the hirelings (also the Pharisees) who abandon the flock. The good shepherd on the other hand lays down His life for the sheep—although He still has sheep in other folds.
Out of this tangle emerges a single thread that runs from verses 3 to 5 through to verse 16 and verse 27. This thread is the voice of the good shepherd: He calls His sheep by name because He knows them. He goes before them and they follow Him because they know His voice. They flee from strangers because they do not know the voice of strangers. The sheep from other folds will also hear His voice, and there will be one flock and one shepherd.
In the morning at the pen
In order to understand the parable correctly, we need to get an idea of the situation at the time: sheep were not kept in a stable, that is a building with a roof, but in walled or fenced-in pen, often a good distance from the village.
After grazing all day in open land, the sheep would be herded into such a pen by their shepherds, who would then go to sleep for the night. One of the shepherds would keep watch at the entrance to the pen during the night. In the morning, the shepherds would go to the pen and call their sheep—who recognised their shepherd’s voice. The names they would use usually had to do with individual characteristics of the animals—maybe something like Spotty, Black Socks, or Floppy Ears.
The voice of the good shepherd
The figurative meaning is clear: we are talking about the good shepherd, namely Jesus Christ, and His fold, the Christians. But it is worth taking a closer look, as the Chief Apostle recently did in a divine service:
- When does the good shepherd call? He calls at our baptism, at our sealing, and at confirmation, “Come to Me, I want you to be with Me.” In every divine service He says, “Listen, I want to tell you something.” And in our day-to-day lives He calls through the quiet voice of the Holy Spirit to tell us, “Listen, why don’t we do it this way?”
- How does Jesus call His sheep? By name and that means that He knows His own better than they know themselves. “I know who you really are and who you can become.” He accepts everyone as they are, with all their flaws. He addresses everyone personally and says, “Listen, I have a message especially for you.”
- What is Christ calling? Let’s go and move on! “Change your perspective, change your point of view, change yourself.” Come out of your enclosure of fixed rules. “There is only one commandment and that is to love others. You have to decide every time anew.” Don’t do what most other people do. “As My disciple you cannot just follow the crowd. Sometimes you have to say, ‘I can’t go along with that!’”
Today, more than ever, various shepherds call their folds—the louder, the more urgent. And in this hubbub we need to ask the question, how can we recognise the call of the Good Shepherd? The answer is threefold. By His words: what He says is the will of His heavenly Father. By His works: what He does and says always corresponds perfectly. By His nature, which is love, selfless love.
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