The Good Shepherd and the Hireling
Good Shepherd Sunday Sermon| Rev. Rolf Preus| April 26, 2009| St. John 10: 11-14
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep. But a hireling, he who is not the shepherd, one who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf catches the sheep and scatters them. The hireling flees because he is a hireling and does not care about the sheep. I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own.” St. John 10, 11-14
Jesus is unique among all religious leaders in the history of the world. All other religious leaders spoke with wisdom they gained by observation, study, and contemplation. Jesus is the wisdom of God. All other religious leaders spoke with words that attempted to connect with God or with whatever served as their god. Jesus is the Word. He is true and eternal wisdom. He is the eternal Word become flesh. When Jesus teaches us God is teaching us because Jesus is God.
King David prayed, “The LORD is my shepherd.” Jesus is the Good Shepherd. He is David’s Lord and the Lord of all the faithful throughout the ages.
Jesus is unique among all religious leaders in the history of the world because Jesus is divine. He did not become divine. He is eternally divine. He became a man. He is God incarnate. He is God with us. He is the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.
Jesus is unique among all religious leaders in the history of the world because only Jesus gave his life for us. That’s not to say that other religious leaders did not lose their lives. Many did. Joseph Smith, for example, died with a gun in his hand in the Nauvoo, Illinois jail at the hands of an angry mob, having been imprisoned for violating the law against polygamy. But there was no value in his death except, perhaps, to inspire his followers to leave the Midwest for scenic Utah.
Only Jesus gave his life as something of true value. Even if his offering of his life had been only the offering of an example it would have been a precious offering. Who has ever provided a better example for living than Jesus of Nazareth? St. Peter, a witness to Christ’s suffering wrote of him:
Who committed no sin, nor was guile found in His mouth, who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously.
Compare the value of Jesus’ example to that of Muhammad who taught his followers to exact revenge and to punish with the sword those who would not submit to the authority of Islam. Jesus’ willingness to suffer gross injustice without complaint has inspired countless imitators over the years. Even those who have not confessed him as their Savior have been instructed by his example.
But when Jesus gave his life for his sheep he did not do so merely as an example. He offered his life in the place of the lives of the sheep. He substituted his life for their lives. This is what makes him uniquely able to give life. No one else can give life. Only the One who gave his life for the sheep can give life. He is the only one who has suffered our death.
All men suffer death. They suffer their own death. Every single man, woman, and child will die. All of us gathered together here today will die. But Jesus and only Jesus died the death of us all. When he gave his life for us he died our death. He suffered. As St. Peter writes, he “bore our sins in His own body on the tree.” The hymnist notes the divine irony in that suffering when he writes:
What punishment so strange is suffered yonder!
The Shepherd dies for sheep that loved to wander.
This is how the Good Shepherd lays claim to the sheep. He purchased them. They are his not by some kind of imposition of force. They are his by his passive endurance. He suffered for them, that is, he suffered the guilt of their sin. He suffered divine punishment of their sin. He bore their sin. He set them free. They belong to him.
The hireling does not own the sheep. The Good Shepherd owns the sheep. This spells the difference between Jesus and all other religious leaders. Only Jesus can rightly lay claim to ownership. The ownership claimed by various religious leaders from the most famous to the most obscure is illegitimate. It is often asserted but it is a false claim. How can one man own another’s soul? Yet Jesus is the shepherd and bishop of our souls. He purchased us with his own blood.
The only legitimate spiritual care is that offered by Christ. Here is why. Christ alone is the Good Shepherd and all others are hirelings. Jesus gives his life for the sheep. The hirelings work for pay. The sheep are to be fleeced for the benefit of the one who makes a living off of them. One does not die for a commodity to be traded. When the sheep are threatened by the wolf the hireling runs away.
The wolf is the devil. He kills and devours the sheep. A sheep doesn’t stand a chance against a wolf. He can only bleat and run. But he can’t hide and he can’t fight. He can only be killed and he will be.
A wolf kills sheep and eats them because that’s his nature. It is the nature of the devil to kill Christians. He craves to kill them as a murderer craves to murder. He kills and devours them because this is what brings him satisfaction. It is his nature to do so. His nature will not change.
We are talking about spiritual realities here. The devil kills and devours Christians by attacking and destroying their faith. He always follows the same strategy. This entails a twofold attack. He attacks the life and the faith. First, he leads the Christian into sin. Then, when the Christian is guilty, the devil uses that guilt to accuse the Christian in such a way that the Christian runs away from God. Once the Christian can no longer hear the voice of the Good Shepherd, he is lost and easy prey.
Now the hireling can offer some help up to a point. He may be working for pay but he certainly knows what works when it comes to living a decent and productive life. He knows right from wrong in a general sense. He teaches morality. He teaches successful living. He provides helpful hints on how to overcome various emotional problems. He can inspire people’s devotion. He can lead them where they should go in their quest to live happy lives here on earth.
But when the wolf attacks the hireling is helpless. The wolf leads us into sin. The hireling can’t deal with sin. The wolf grabs us by the throat to rip it out and kill us dead. The hireling can’t deal with death. Only the Good Shepherd bore our sin in his own body. Only the Good Shepherd died our death. He alone can lead us out of death into life. The hireling can help us only until we are faced with our own mortality brought about by our own sin. In other words, when we really need spiritual counsel because our lives depend on it, it is then that the hireling will run away and leave us to the tender mercies of the hungry wolf.
The wolf comes and scatters the sheep. He drives the individual sheep out of the fold. He wants to isolate a sheep away from the fold. He wants to be alone for his kill. That’s his sustenance. And it is our death.
The devil drives the individual Christian away from the church and away from the voice of the Good Shepherd. The sheep recognize the voice of their shepherd. As long as they hear his voice they are safe because all they need to do is stay close to that voice and their shepherd will protect them from the wolf. They can’t protect themselves, but the shepherd can.
This is why we need to go to church faithfully, and not just to any church, but to a church where the true voice of the Good Shepherd is proclaimed. We need to hear the gospel. We need to hear the refutation of the devil’s lies. We need to be convicted in our conscience of our sins. God knows all about you. He sees you as you really are. He does not reject you on account of your sins leaving you to fend for yourself. He takes those condemning sins upon himself and suffers your condemnation for you. This is what it means that the Good Shepherd gives his life for the sheep.
He speaks. His sheep hear. He knows them. He knows their sins for he suffered for them. He knows their fears because he faced them. He knows them better than they know themselves.
And they know him. They know his gospel. They know when they are being set free and when they are being bound. This is why they won’t go to where the hireling sets up shop. They want more than helpful hints on how to feel good about themselves. They want life. Only the One who gave his life for them can give true life to them.
There is no greater honor than to be a sheep of the Good Shepherd. A sheep is not very bright. We admit our innate spiritual folly. But a sheep does recognize his shepherd’s voice. We know the gospel when we hear it. We know when our souls are being set free from the guilt we are bearing and when the gate of heaven is opened to us. The voice of our Good Shepherd is the sound we cherish the most. For he never fails us in our need and when we are assaulted by a bad conscience and the accusations of the devil, he drives the devil away and brings us true peace. Amen