An Old Parable too Fresh for Comfort

Confused and confusing

My head is swirling. I can’t keep up. My relationship with the news is like my 17 year-old son’s description of an older married couple he’d just met: “She’s confused, and he’s confusing.” The world is confusing, I’m confused, and it’s about to get worse. Macular degeneration has not yet affected my reading, but, according to my ophthalmologist, it likely won’t be long before I’ll need new glasses.

To see more clearly

For just as eyes, when dimmed with age or weakness or by some other defect, unless aided by spectacles, discern nothing distinctly; so, such is our feebleness, unless Scripture guides us in seeking God, we are immediately confused. — 16th Century CE French reformer Jean Calvin.

The parable of the sheep, the shepherd, thieves and bandits provides a way of looking at what is happening now, as well as then. Jesus’ parables exceed the boundaries of time and place. 

Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit (John 10:1).

Very truly, I tell you…

The introduction to the parable, “Very truly, I tell you,” commands my attention. Truth has fallen out of favor. Falsehood is in vogue. To tell the truth is suspect. If  honesty prevailed in 2023, many leaders would begin, “Very falsely, I tell you,” before they set off to undermine truth with self-serving partisan speeches, rallies, alternative facts, and agendas.

The Shepherd, thieves, and insurrectionists

The circumstances in which these words are addressed are much like our own. Parables are like that. They exceed the boundaries of time and place. The sheep (people) are threatened by religious leaders (thieves) who have twisted their faith traditions, on the one hand, and bandits (armed nationalist insurrectionists), on the other. Both thieves and bandits are climbing over the stone wall into the sheepfold. The words κλεπτης (thief) and ληστης (robber, brigand, bandit) call for deeper understanding. English translations — “thief” and “robbers” — appear to be a needless repetition, but they are not the same. The κλεπτης  is a thief; the ληστης is an insurrectionist.

The Thief

The thief is a burglar, a bad shepherd. Fourth Ezra, a non-canonical work of the second century CE, catches the sense of it. “Do not desert us [the sheep] as a shepherd does [who leaves] his flock in the power of harmful wolves.” The thief in Jesus parable robs the people’s sacred tradition in collusion with the occupying power, the wolf, the Roman empire. When Jesus  drives the moneychangers from the Temple, his fury is with the deeper theft— the robbery of the people’s sacred tradition. “Get them out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a house of trade!” (John 2:16)

The bandit

The bandit is different from the thief. The ληστης is not a κλεπτης ! The thief (κλεπτης) is malleable. He adapts, as circumstances require. That bandit (ληστης)  does not. The last thing a kleptomaniac wants is a ruckus! That bandit (ληστης) makes a ruckus. The ληστης is armed and dangerous, ready to do whatever it may take to get his country back.

The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.

Reckless assumptions

A shepherd’s voice is calm. Its assuring tone and cadence allay anxiety, fear, and panic. The sheep expect a thief or bandit to climb over the wall at night or in broad daylight. They will see it with their eyes and hear it with their own ears. 

They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.

But what if the stranger impersonates the shepherd’s voice? What if the sheep do not hear the difference between the shepherd’s voice and the imitative voice? What if the shepherd has been away? What if anxiety dulls the flock’s hearing and clouds its vision, such that the desire for security weakens its defenses against impostors? What if they mistake the thief (κλεπτης) for the good shepherd who enters, and leads them out, through the gate?

The thief comes only to steal, slaughter, and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. (Jn. 10:10, NRSVA)

Penultimate thoughts

Although, with age, my eyesight is dimming, my knowledge antiquated, and my soul heavy with weakness and defect, an old pair of spectacles helps me see more clearly beneath and beyond the dazzling displays of wealth and power. I’m stunned that we can be so foolish, but I’m not shocked. The parable of the Good Shepherd zooms in on reality. It leaves me asking who I will follow before all goes dark.

Most disturbing to this old preacher are clergy colleagues who, laying aside their spectacles, on Palm Sundays, lead anxious, fearful flocks in the parade, waving palm branches for Barabbas (Bar [Son] of Abba [Father]), the alternative savior thief and insurrectionist who swears he’s been robbed.

No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be loyal to the one and have contempt for the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. (Matthew 6:24, CEB)
Gordon C. Stewart, Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf and Stock), 49 short essays on faith and the news; Brooklyn Park, MN, May 2, 2023.

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