One day, Jesus and his disciples were walking along when they saw a blind man sitting on the side of the road. They found out that the man had been born blind and immediately the disciples started debating. “Who sinned,” they pondered, “that caused this man to be born blind?” As their debate grew more heated Jesus finally cut in. “No one sinned.” He said, “But see what God can do.” And then Jesus touched the blind man and restored his sight.
A small crowd gathered around the formerly blind man, some amazed and others skeptical. The religious leaders, who did not like Jesus, found out about the miracle and called the formerly blind man in for questioning. The religious leaders did not want to believe that Jesus healed the man, and yet the man was healed. They asked him what happened and he said, “Jesus healed me.” But they didn’t like that answer, so they called in the man’s parents.
“Is this your son?” The religious leaders asked.
“Yes,” his parents replied.
“And was he born blind?” They asked.
“Yes,” his parents replied.
“So how is it that he can see?” They demanded.
Now the man’s parents knew that the religious leaders did not like Jesus. And they knew that any display of support for Jesus could get them thrown out of the community. So they balked, and they said, “We don’t know. Ask our son. He’s an adult. He can speak for himself!” And they hurried away.
So the religious leaders called the formerly-blind man in one final time and said, “We know that Jesus is a fraud! Tell us the truth. How did you get healed?” The blind man simply shook his head and said, “I’ve told you all I can. Jesus has healed me.” This was the last straw for the religious leaders, and so they banished the man from their community.
When Jesus heard the man had been banished, he met him on the road. “Do you believe in the Son of God?” Jesus asked the man. “If I knew who that was, I suppose I would,” the man replied. Then Jesus said, “I am.” And the man dropped to his knees and worshipped Jesus.
Some of the religious leaders were standing nearby when this happened and they scoffed at Jesus and the formerly-blind man. And Jesus replied, “I am the good shepherd and the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.”
This story about the man born blind is the context for today’s gospel reading. All of Jesus’ comments about the Good Shepherd take place immediately after this incident and his words are directed at the religious leaders. I shared this story with you because knowing this story will help us better understand what Jesus says about the “good shepherd.”
The story of the man born blind is disturbing on several levels, but one thing that bothers me is that almost everyone in the story sees the blind man as an object to be debated rather than a human being with value. The disciples do not help the blind man; rather they make him the object of a theology lesson, arguing over the connections between sin and suffering. The religious leaders express no joy over the man’s healing but rather interrogate him and then banish him. Even the man’s own parents, in their fear of the religious leaders, abandon him.
There is only one person in the whole story who sees the man as he really is, who does not objectify him, but loves him. And that person is Jesus. While everyone else seems content to talk about the man born blind, Jesus actually helps him, first by restoring his sight and then by inviting him into a relationship. For Jesus, healing is an invitation to relationship. Jesus heals the blind man not just because he wants to alleviate the man’s sufferings, but also because he wants the man to know and love God. Everyone else in the story rejects a relationship with the man, but Jesus reaches out in love and friendship and the man reaches back.
When the religious leaders scoff at Jesus, Jesus replies that he is the good shepherd and the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. We often assume that this is a reference to the cross: to lay down one’s life means to die. But I think Jesus is getting at something bigger than that here. John’s gospel is all about incarnation, the act of God becoming a human being. In John’s understanding, Jesus doesn’t just lay down his life by dying on the cross, he lays down his life by becoming a human being. In Jesus, God gives up God’s divine life to take on a human life. And God does this not for God’s benefit but for ours. Jesus lays down his life for us by dedicating his whole life to us, not just his death.
Jesus lays down his life for the man born blind, while the disciples, the religious leaders, and the man’s parents all keep their own lives firmly in hand. The disciples are caught up in their selfish argument. The religious leaders are caught up in their selfish power. The man’s parents are caught up in their selfish fear. They all tend exclusively to their own interests. It is only Jesus who puts aside his own life, his own interests, in order to reach out to the blind man: to heal him, to know him, to love him.
This is what a good shepherd does. A good shepherd looks to the interests of his sheep and dedicates his life to them and their needs. A good shepherd doesn’t treat his sheep like an object merely to be studied like the disciples do to the blind man. A good shepherd doesn’t abuse and reject his own sheep like the religious leaders do. A good shepherd doesn’t run away at the first sign of trouble, like the man’s parents do. A good shepherd sticks by the sheep, loving them even when it is hard, even when it is dangerous.
In our epistle reading today, John writes, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” To lay down our lives for each other does not necessarily mean that we must die for each other. Rather, it means we must dedicate our own lives to each other’s service. So often, without even realizing it, we treat each other as objects to be studied, or obstacles to be overcome, or just part of the scenery.
We objectify people all the time. We do it by reducing people down to a single quality. Our sex-obsessed culture routinely views people as nothing more than objects of our own sexual desire, rather than whole people and valuable children of God. We see this kind of objectification in pornography, television, film, advertisements, and our own personal lives.
We objectify people when we make assumptions about them. Whenever we think we’ve got someone all figured out because of their Make America Great Again hat or Black Lives Matter tee shirt or their NRA or Coexist bumper sticker or their pristine front lawn or ramshackle house; whenever we think we’ve got someone figured out because of the color of their skin; whenever we think we’ve got someone figured out because of their religion, we objectify them. We do this all the time: we assume all kinds of hurtful and untrue things about people simply because of the one thing we know about them. When we do this, we see people as caricatures, rather than the complicated, beautiful, beloved children of God that they are.
Jesus calls us to lay down our lives for each other. To lay down our lives for each other is to be willing to see each other as whole human beings and beloved children of God. This means that we lay down our lives not only for our family members or the people who think and act like us, but for anyone who is in need. But we can’t do that unless we can see the value in people first.
The black nurse who continues to provide exceptional care even as her white patient lashes out in blatant racism lays down her life. The republican who invites his democratic coworker out for coffee to better understand his point of view lays down his life. The addict who owns up to her addiction and seeks help and reconciliation lays down her life. The single mom who works tirelessly to provide for her three young children lays down her life. The young Christian who speaks out in defense of his Muslim neighbor lays down his life. The Liberian doctor who continues to see patients even though he hasn’t been paid in over a year lays down his life. The father who continues to love his transgender daughter even though he doesn’t fully understand her lays down his life. The woman who dedicates all her Saturdays to serving at the homeless shelter lays down her life. Whenever we put aside our own feelings or ambitions, whenever we see another person as a human being worthy of God’s love, whenever we offer ourselves to the service of others, we lay down our life.
Will we always do this as well as Jesus? Of course not! We cannot love each other as perfectly as Jesus loves us. The act of seeing the full humanity of other people is exhausting and we simply cannot sustain it every moment of every day. And yet Jesus still calls us to lay down our lives for our neighbors. In the moments when we fail to love one another as we ought, we can remember that we have a good shepherd who loves us and who laid down his life for us. We can rest in the love of God, knowing that God knows us and loves us and desires a relationship with us; and in the knowledge of that good news, we can go back out into the world, ready to try again to lay down our lives for our neighbors.