We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help? (1 John 3.16-17)
Sunday’s texts feature two beloved passages: Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd”), along with John 10.11-18 (“I am the Good Shepherd”). And it fascinates me that the shepherd metaphor continues to resonate all these centuries later, even though very few of us have any real experience with sheep. The closest I’ve ever got to one is at a petting zoo and, frankly, I don’t recall much of what that was like, as sheep are by nature rather dull. They’re docile and, from what I’ve read of them, dim-witted. They rely entirely on their keepers for survival. They exhibit no knack for finding pasture on their own—no sense of direction—and the herd mentality that holds other grazing animals together isn’t evident in them. Without a shepherd to guide and corral them, sheep are as good as dead. So it mystifies me that we romanticize poems and parables that cast us as clueless, vulnerable livestock wholly dependent on our Keeper.
Even for those of us with first-hand experience tending sheep, what we know bears little resemblance to what David and Jesus speak of. In ancient times, shepherding is a nomadic trade. Flocks travel wherever the shepherd goes. There are no farms, barns, and fenced pastures. After settling in a meadowland, the shepherd fashions a makeshift pen to ward off predators and prevent the lambs from wandering off in the night. In place of a gate, the shepherd lays down in the enclosure’s opening, as the first line of defense to shield the flock from harm. By filling the gap, the shepherd not only denies easy access for predatory attacks and keeps the sheep from going astray; he safeguards the fold from marauding bandits. Willingness to sacrifice personal comfort and safety for the sheep’s sake is the mark of a good shepherd, as Jesus explains in John 10.11: “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” In turn, the sheep’s trust in him is what David describes in Psalm 23.4: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for You are with me.” Laying down his life is the key to the good shepherd metaphor. It introduces an element of danger that gives the poetry hard-edged realism. Harsh truth slices through the pastoral mist.
The Loving Thing
The good shepherd risks his life for his sheep because they are his livelihood. The keeper-flock relationship is symbiotic, driven as much, if not more, by pragmatism as by mutual affection. Sheep can’t live without their shepherd; a shepherd can’t live without his sheep. There’s a primal bond between them that defines their roles and secures their wellbeing. And this serves as the foundation when 1 John 3 invokes the shepherd metaphor, saying, “We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us.” What John does next is very interesting. He places us in the shepherd’s position. “And we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?” (v16-17)
Let’s try to unpack this. John begins by highlighting our Shepherd’s love. Christ’s sacrificial death becomes the paradigm of compassion, echoing Jesus’s definition of supreme love in John 15.13: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Because we’ve been blessed to know the greatest of all loves, John says we ought to lay down our lives for others. It’s the loving thing to do—to provide for and protect those who travel beside us, to do everything we can, risking our very lives if need be to safeguard them from predators, thieves, and going astray. What’s more, John ups the ante, calling us to go all in. As recipients of God’s great, unconditional love, we can only witness it by loving extravagantly and selflessly. And here is where John flips the switch, turning our attention from the metaphor’s romance to recognize its pragmatic principle. Willingness to lay down our lives guarantees that those in need won’t go without. God’s love in us opens the way; God’s goodness to us provides the means. John constrains us to emulate our Good Shepherd and then ingeniously simplifies laying down one’s life into a two-question sequence. What do they need, and what have we to give? If only it were as simple as he makes it sound.
How Can We?
In John’s era, material poverty was a major concern. For a large portion of society, depending on kindness was the best hope of survival. Tragically, millions today are in no better stead. Yet for the vast majority of us, the poverty crisis plays out on emotional, moral, and spiritual planes. In obtaining more worldly goods than any generation before, many surrender more of themselves than their ancestors could possibly imagine. While people and things they value engulf them, they’re hollow inside. They feel miserably alone and undervalued. Though pride blinds them from seeing it, they’re in dire need of help. Their lives are riddled with gaps. They’re vulnerable to predators who prey on their emotions, thieves who rob them of moral integrity, and dim-wittedness that causes them to wander into the night. They need someone to lay down their lives for them, and we have it in us to do that.
We’ve been drawn into a symbiotic relationship—not only as sheep belonging to the Good Shepherd, but also as good shepherds given responsibility for other sheep. The conviction in John’s question—“Can we see people in need and refuse to help?”—should ring in the depths of our beings. Can we see lives at risk and not risk our all for them? Can we ignore huge gaps that need to be filled? Can we pull away and rest easy while others remain easy prey for predators, thieves, and misguided impulses? The unequaled love abiding in us would say, “No, you can’t. You must lay down your life.”
Because of the Good Shepherd’s love for us, we too become good shepherds willing to lay down our lives for endangered sheep around us.
Podcast link: http://straightfriendly.podbean.com/2012/04/28/lay-down/.