Fathers and Sheep (?)

It is sometimes considered unwise to talk about the father-child relationship in today’s culture. With so many children being raised without the active presence of their fathers, it is easy to back away from such topics for fear of excluding these children. In addition, there are far too many fathers who are present but in an abusive way. This thought may initially seem removed from today’s text for Lent, but I think the “Good Shepherd” passage leads to insights regarding fathers and children. John 10:(1-6), 7-18:

7 So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. 11 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 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. 13 He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. 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. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. 18 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.”

I am not a psychologist; only occasionally do I read the ideas of psychologists. I have gathered, however, that observations of children have confirmed what experience demonstrates: children seek to please their parents, especially their fathers. They attempt to perform in such a way as to gain the approval of those they believe to be responsible for their care. In many cases, this is difficult to accomplish; in all too many it is only to avoid disapproval rather than to gain positive affirmation. But what does this have to do with Jesus being a good shepherd, whatever that means to 21st century Americans?

While this short passage is loaded with images with which we only partially identify, I want to consider that the closing portion is important to understanding the beginning portion. “For this reason” (v.17) the Father loves the Son–that Jesus came to be the shepherd who gives his life willingly on behalf of those he designates as his sheep. He pleases his Father by doing willingly, not out of any compulsion other than his love, what he needed to do to save the sheep. In contrast to all teachers and pretenders before him, Jesus speaks in ways that resonate in the heart and mind. His commitment to those who respond is to give his life on their behalf. And this pleases the Father.

But we cannot stop there, as some have done in their complaints regarding the traditional representations of atonement doctrine (I am thinking of those who have charged that this doctrine amounts to, and therefore fosters, child abuse). There is the taking up of the life laid down. There is resurrection. The Father knows this; the Son knows this. But the Son needed to trust the Father; and He could. As parents, we want our children to trust us enough to believe that the outcomes we predict for them will justify the sacrifices they will need to make. As children, we want to have the love that can be trusted when the moment of sacrifice is before us. And when the purposes of the sacrifices and the goals held out before us align with those of God, how much greater the joy in the parent-child relationship. But even more, this passage indicates that Jesus brings his sheep into a relationship with HIS Father, who becomes theirs as well. And we, too, please this Father with our willingness to lay down our lives for his purposes–so that He can give them back again.

Lord, develop in us the level of trust that Jesus himself placed in your promise.