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On a certain Saturday in late July of 2006, I found myself sitting in the pastoral care office of Children’s Medical Center in Dallas, Texas, waiting for a ten-year-old boy to die. I had sat with his mother by his bedside earlier in the day. We had cried the Rosary together. We had held hands and gazed upon the face of the little boy. When his mother asked for some private time with her son, I returned to the office and waited for the pager to ring. And as I waited, I jotted down the first verse of a song that took me the next three years to write. The words of John 10 echoed in my mind as I wrote the lyrics because for weeks I had been telling the Godly Play story of the Good Shepherd with children on my floor of the hospital.
Almost four years to the day, I sit at my computer. None of the urgency or the heartbreak of that day remains, and I am aware of the complacency that has crept in over the years. And once again, the words of John 10 return to my mind: Jesus is the good shepherd who calls his sheep by voice. They hear their names and he leads them out of the sheepfold. But a closer look shows that Jesus doesn’t necessarily lead them out (as many English translations say). Rather, he throws them out of the sheepfold. Here’s what I mean.
Jesus begins his discussion with something as close to a parable as the Gospel according to John gets. In the other accounts of the Gospel, Jesus often speaks in parables, but not in John. Instead, Jesus himself is the parable of God — the way God is made known in the world (John 1:18). Here in chapter 10, Jesus speaks in a “figure of speech” about shepherding and sheep and wolves and bandits. Jesus identifies himself as the good shepherd who calls his sheep by name and “leads them out” (NRSV). The word for “lead out” is one of my favorite Greek words: ekballo. This is a fairly prevalent verb in the Gospel according to John and in the other accounts, as well. In the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), when Jesus casts out demons, he ekballo-s them. In John 2, when Jesus drives out the moneychangers and animal sellers from the temple, he ekballo-s them. The man born blind is ekballo-ed from the synagogue at the end of chapter 9. And finally, in chapter 12, Jesus mentions that the “ruler of this world” will be ekballo-ed from it.
In each of these cases, the connotation of ekballo is to drive out or cast out or throw out. But in John 10, according to, say, the NRSV, the shepherd calls his sheep by name and “leads them out.” While Greek words definitely have ranges of meaning, I suggest that we should translate the instance of the word ekballo in chapter 10 not as “lead out,” but as “throw out.” Here’s why.
The first character Jesus introduces in chapter 10 is a thief and a bandit. This person climbs into the sheepfold rather than entering through the gate. The thief comes only to “steal and kill and destroy.” Furthermore, outside the sheepfold there are wolves waiting to snatch up the sheep and scatter them. Hired hands are no help because they run away when they see the wolves coming. With thieves, bandits, and wolves roaming outside the sheepfold, leaving the fold can be frightening and dangerous.
In contrast, the sheepfold is safe and secure — shepherds bring their flocks to these enclosures at night for safety. But the sheep can’t live their whole lives in the sheepfold, no matter how safe and secure they may feel. They must go out into the world beyond the gate to graze for food (which, as far as I can tell, is all sheep do). So the shepherd ekballo-s them. The shepherd throws the sheep out of the fold so they can eat and drink and run.
The sheepfold is a safe place, but everything outside the sheepfold is dangerous. Who would not want to stay in the fold? Being led out into the world can feel like being thrown out. What is my fold? What do I use to shelter myself from the world? Where do I feel comfortable to the point of intransigence? The answer to these questions is the thing from which Jesus throws me out.
Contemporary sheepfolds come in all shapes, sizes, and disguises. Perhaps my family is my sheepfold, or my work, or, yes, even my church. For me, my complacency is the fold from which Jesus constantly throws me. The fold of complacency is slippery and amorphous because it has no walls, no group of people with whom to identify, no action of its own. And complacency leads to complicity with all the bad things in the world. I am so entrenched in my complacency that Jesus has to throw me out of it. It is the demon in me that Jesus casts out, the ruler of my world that Jesus drives out.
And he throws me out of this fold with one simple word: my name. Jesus calls me by name and I hear his voice and I know that I have been in the fold too long. By calling my name, Jesus brings me into an intimate relationship with him. (Remember in middle school when you found out your crush actually knew your name? It’s a good feeling, isn’t it?) By calling my name, Jesus tells me he knows me, knows that I struggle with complacency, knows that I need a swift kick in the trousers (a new translation of ekballo, perhaps?) to prompt me to act in the world on his behalf.
When I listen for Jesus calling my name, I feel his hands continually throwing me out of the fold of complacency. When I hear Jesus calling my name, I know that he has given me life and given it abundantly. This abundance of life is made possible by the intimate relationship Jesus has founded with me by knowing my name. When I venture out of my sheepfold into the frightening, dangerous world, I know that Jesus, my shepherd, is guiding me with his voice. And I know that he will continue to throw me out of the comfortable folds I find myself in so I can, with his help, continue to do God’s work in the world.