Thieves and Bandits
Amen, amen lego humin.
This is the Greek wording that the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible translates as “Very truly, I tell you,” and that John uses in his gospel to introduce Jesus’s most solemn sayings. The other gospels have Jesus introducing particular sayings with Amen, or “Truly I tell you,” so we can say with some confidence that this peculiar use of the Aramaic word amen was characteristic of Jesus’s speech. In normal practice, the people of Jesus’s day used amen the same way we do, at the end of a statement to emphasize its truth and importance or to express approval of what another person had said. (And all the people said….) But Jesus seems to have been alone in using amen to preface his remarks. It was his way of saying, “Listen up! You’d better pay attention to the next thing I’m about to say.” By doubling it—“amen, amen”—John’s Jesus was saying, “This is extremely important! Ignore it at your peril!”
“Amen, amen” appears at the beginning of today’s gospel lesson from John 10, so let’s take a closer look to see what John thinks is so important. “Very truly (amen, amen) I tell you,” he says, “anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit” (v. 1).
Wait a minute. That’s your “amen, amen” statement? Look out for sheep stealers?
This sounds like a pretty commonplace observation, and one that would hardly merit one of Jesus's double amens. If you see someone entering a house by a window instead of through the door, it likely means one of two things: the homeowner has been locked out of the house without a key … or it’s a burglar. If you climb over the fence instead of going through the gate, your top concern is probably not the welfare of the flock. Pretty straightforward.
But John says Jesus said, “Amen, amen,” so I guess we need to pay attention.
One thing we notice when we look at this statement more closely is that the word translated here as “bandit” is the same word that Mark and Matthew use to describe the two criminals crucified with Jesus. It is also the same word that the first-century Jewish historian Josephus uses to describe, in a disdainful way, the guerrillas who used to attack and rob rich travelers on the roads of Galilee and Judea, and who later joined the popular resistance front in rebelling against Roman rule in 66 CE.
At least some of the peasants who languished under the double tyranny of the Roman occupiers and their own aristocracy would have referred to these bandits as “freedom fighters.” Those who, like Josephus, belonged to the upper classes whose prosperity and security came from collaborating with Rome would likely have called them “terrorists.” In the first century, as in the twenty-first century, the circumstances of one’s life—what sociologists call one’s “social location”—determined how one saw the world. We would do well to remember this when we find ourselves scratching our heads at the popular support enjoyed by those we define as terrorists.
Another thing to note about this saying is that the shepherd imagery Jesus uses here held rich associations for his hearers and for John’s readers, steeped as they were in the literature of the Hebrew Bible. Shepherds and sheep, both literal and figurative, appear throughout the Old Testament. Consider the 23rd Psalm, which we read earlier. Its familiar and comforting pastoral imagery determines to a great extent our ideas of what a “good shepherd” should look like.
These ideas carry over into the New Testament and color our mental image of Jesus. We have tended to romanticize much about Jesus—who has not seen a picture of “gentle Jesus meek and mild” carrying a lamb on his shoulders and smiling munificently, as though inviting us, the viewers, to come join his flock as well? The title “pastor” comes from the Greek word for shepherd, and this only serves to reinforce this image of Jesus as a tender shepherd and of the “tender" pastors who follow his example in caring for the spiritual needs of their flocks.
What gets lost in all this is that in the Hebrew Bible the shepherd was used as a metaphor for political rulers. King David may have been an actual shepherd in his youth, but as the years went on and the myth of his ideal reign grew, the king-as-shepherd metaphor became iconic. The prophets used it again and again to evaluate contemporary rulers and to express their longing for a return to the idyllic time of David the shepherd king. The prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Micah, Nahum, and Zechariah all spoke about kings as shepherds.
Some of these kings proved to be faithful shepherds of the flock, but most were judged to be worthless, as in this passage from Ezekiel:
Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them (Ezek 34:2–4).
Because of this failure of the rulers, the expectation arose of a future shepherd king, or messiah, in the mold of David. According to Ezekiel, God says, “I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged. I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them . . . and be their shepherd” (Ezek 34:22–23).
So what we have in Jesus’s discourse about shepherds and sheep in John 10 is not necessarily a heart-warming description of a tender caregiver. Instead, it is a declaration that Jesus is the true and legitimate ruler of the people of God, the New Israel that John believes began with Jesus’s resurrection and the birth of the church. The Good Shepherd, which Jesus declares himself to be in verse 11, is a political designation as much as it is a spiritual or religious one. In fact, the idea of separating the religious from the political would have been nonsensical to first century people. It wasn’t even thought of as a possibility, favorable or otherwise.
Long use and our pernicious tendency to try to domesticate Jesus may have obscured it, but whenever we talk about the lordship of Jesus we are saying the same thing. “Jesus is Lord” is a political declaration. “Thy kingdom come” is not only a pledge of allegiance to God as our spiritual head but also a denial that any other god, king, or state has final authority over us. We may be American, Korean, Vietnamese, Ugandan, or what have you, but our primary citizenship, if we mean it when we say, “Jesus is Lord,” is in the kingdom of God.
All who try to usurp Jesus’s place as Lord, who try to steal our allegiance, Jesus says are thieves and bandits. In his day, these counterfeit shepherds often took the form of messianic pretenders—the “freedom fighters” we saw earlier who claimed the title of messiah in order to rally the people to their cause, the violent overthrow of Roman rule. Jesus rejected both their claims and their means. John’s gospel depicts Jesus as knowing without a doubt his identity as the Son of God. In this passage he declares himself to be the true king, and he says his true subjects—the sheep of his fold—know his voice and will not follow a stranger. He is encouraging and urging those who are wavering, who are considering following the thieves and bandits, to remain faithful.
The reward for trusting the voice of our shepherd is security and abundance. Jesus uses the metaphor of the gate of a sheepfold and says that those who enter through that gate “will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture” (v. 9). To “come in and go out” is a common expression used in the Bible to convey the idea of absolute security and safety. When we hear and obey the true shepherd’s voice and refuse to follow the thieves and bandits, we will be safe and enjoy abundance. In fact, Jesus says there is no other means to achieve security and abundance than through responding to his voice. The thieves and bandits may promise these things, but they never deliver. On the contrary, “the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy” (v. 10). Jesus, as the Incarnation of God, is the only source of life: “I came that [my sheep] may have life, and have it abundantly” (v. 10).
The tricky thing about the thieves and bandits is that they also promise security and success. This may explain why Jesus is so adamant about identifying himself as the true shepherd and distinguishing himself from these counterfeits. Very truly I tell you, he says. Amen, amen. The rebels of Jesus's day made extravagant promises. They told the people that if they would take up arms against the Romans, God would bring deliverance and a return to the golden age of David.
Jesus said not to listen to them.
The shepherds of our day also make grand promises. They tell us they will keep us safe from the evils of terrorism while at the same time ensuring a continuing abundance of petroleum for our cars. They claim, however, that the only way to accomplish our just and peaceful aims is by obliterating our enemies.
Jesus says not to listen to them.
Actually, the message is more subtle than that. These shepherds promise us security, but they know that their hold over us depends on their stoking our fears. Whether it’s ISIS, North Korea, Iran, or the undocumented “murderers and rapists” who walk among us, the message is clear: “You must be vigilant. You are at risk. Continue to be afraid.”
Not only is the message clear, but so is the remedy. More military spending. More saber-rattling. More reckless threats and indiscriminate air strikes. Less inhibition when it comes to utilizing tools with perverse names like the Mother of All Bombs.
A question haunts me as we continue down this road of ever-escalating violence: When will we learn to listen to the voice of our Shepherd? When will we realize that these other voices belong only to thieves and bandits, and that all they can do is kill and steal and destroy?
When I say “we” I mean the church. Nations will do what nations do and have always done, but the church is called to a different path. We are to be peacemakers. We are to work for justice for all people. We are to oppose violence and coercion and every form of hate. We are to be a different kind of community that shows the world a different possibility. We are to be the city on a hill that cannot be hidden. We are to let our light shine out in such a way that the world will see the light of God burning in our lives.
Jesus tells us to be the salt of the earth. We are to be different from the world without withdrawing from the world. Our reading from Acts shows what that can look like:
[The followers of Jesus] devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved (vv. 42–47).
This was a group of disciples who had been transformed by their friendship with Jesus during his life, their encounters with Jesus after his resurrection, and their experience of empowerment by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. They were changed people, and it showed in the way they lived their lives. They shared table fellowship without making distinctions. They worshiped together. They shared their possessions so that no one in their community was in need while others had more than enough. They embodied a new kind of community—a community of people who had learned the sound of their shepherd’s voice and could therefore ignore the competing voices of the thieves and bandits. They lived this transformed communal life in full view of the world, and what happened? “Day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (v. 47).
We too hear the voices of thieves and bandits. Voices that tell us to be afraid. Voices that say peace and security can be achieved through war and an unbridled free market. Voices that say, in the words of songwriter Rich Mullins, “Grow up and be a consumer and not a dissident” (Mullins, "Higher Education"). Our task is to learn how to pick out of this cacophony of voices the voice of the true shepherd—the one who wants us to be dissidents and troublemakers for the sake of justice. When we know and heed our shepherd’s voice, the result is trust and the assurance that as long as our shepherd is looking out for us, all will be well. Not that everything will be perfect and conflict-free; far from it. Jesus himself assures us that in this world we will have trouble. But then he adds, “Take heart, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33, NIV). In the last analysis, that is the only real security there is.
Mullins, Rich. 1989. "Higher Education and the Book of Love." Never Picture Perfect. Reunion Records.