Yesterday’s gospel text from John 10 talked about Jesus the good shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep. This would appear to be a strange thing for a shepherd to do – surely a sheep is ultimately nothing but a disposable commodity, eventually destined for the dinner table anyway. But I wonder whether this tension is not, in fact, the whole point of the story. Perhaps we are being led to think about our own sense of the ‘disposability’ of lives in our own calculations of what costs we are prepared to absorb in order to reach our intended goal.
Jesus, as good shepherd. is the one who demonstrates the extent to which he is prepared to go in order that ‘they have life, and have it abundantly’. He is prepared to go to the extent of laying down his life. Indeed, there is no way to life other than the way of self-giving: no ‘taking up’ without ‘laying down’. There is no way to life if we take the route of self-preservation. There is no way to life as long as we regard any life as disposable. This self-giving, which is a kind of self-forgetting, is a basic recognition of the unity of all that lives (one flock). Existence is not matter of the sum of individual egos but a fundamental unity, so we only serve life if we let go of a commitment to the primacy of my individual ego. This is something more profound than ‘we’ over ‘me’: it is the recognition of the artificiality of these categories.
John’s meditation on Jesus as good shepherd is also, then, the basis for a spirituality and a theology of nonviolence. Violence is founded on the commodification or utilitarian view of life. Other lives are expendable in the name of preserving my values and ‘liberties’. Nonviolence is founded on the essential unity of life – no life flourishes if any life is denied. But, paradoxically, the way of life that enhances life is a way of laying down one’s life. What can this mean? I think it means precisely the refusal to define life in terms of self-interest. My fate and that of my enemy are bound up together, and this radical position is at the heart of Jesus’ revolutionary teaching.
So the good shepherd is much more than the paternalistic dispenser of benevolence beloved of Victorian stained glass artists. He is the exemplar of nonviolence, a revolutionary who bids us realise what is already true – that we are all of one flock and that none must be lost to the violence and exclusion that we imagine to guarantee our security.