Translation becomes a little more challenging with passages like John 10:1-21, in which the authors of John identify Jesus as the "good shepherd" and every other teacher as a coward, thief, and liar. Many readers tend to treat Jesus as a unique figure and take the passage at face value without much thought. Considering our definition of "divinity" as something inherent to every human being and our rational conclusion that there is no external supernatural intelligence guiding human life and decisions, finding value in this passage requires sticking with the understanding that the Jesus character in the gospel of John is intended as an exemplar.
As with many of these passages, we have a few characters (or groups of characters) to examine. First, there are the sheep; then there are the hired hands, thieves, and bandits; then there is the good shepherd archetype. Let's consider the sheep first. Calling people sheep is not flattering. Sheep were easy for people to domesticate because of their flock behavior. If one sheep heads toward a new grazing area, the flock has a tendency to follow right along. For a sheep, leading a flock of sheep is as simple as moving before anyone else does. Sheep also have a tendency to run away if anything not-sheep gets too close. So, controlling sheep is easy for people who know how to exploit the flocking and fleeing tendencies of the animals. Sheep also seem to quickly adapt to getting food from people, which leads them to treat people as safe.
However intelligent sheep may be, they don't seem to be particularly thoughtful. It's understandable that people -- especially large groups of people -- would be likened to sheep. Human beings have a fairly strong drive toward togetherness, too. And human beings aren't particularly thoughtful when they shift into mob mentality. Like sheep following whoever happened to move first, people sometimes seem to gratefully follow the first person with an idea. It's almost like we appreciate not having to think through an issue for ourselves. Someone else's impulsiveness saves us the hard mental work of evaluating an issue.
The description of sheep in John suggests that sheep-people know the difference between people who intend harm and people who intend to contribute to their well-being. This is a bit confusing, though, because people have listened to a wide variety of teachers, and it has historically seemed difficult for people to distinguish between good ideas and harmful ideas when they are part of a flock. Individuals can be brilliant, but those same individuals in the midst of a reactive group might behave just as impulsively as everyone else, grateful for the opportunity not to have to think. The quote that comes to mind is from the first Men in Black, in which Tommy Lee Jones observes, "A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals."
This would seem to be something of a choice. Yes, we have a tendency to follow the flock thoughtlessly, but we're capable of thinking through a situation and connecting our values to our behavior. If we're capable of doing that as individuals, we're capable of doing that in a group of people, even if everyone around us is mindlessly following the flock. Should the sheep analogy hold true, we may end up being inadvertent leaders, just because we choose to move in a direction before anybody else.
Sheep don't choose to lead, though. There's no voting. There's no volunteering. Among sheep, leadership is an accident. This might be the case among people sometimes, too, but it doesn't have to be. We can be more intentional in our decisions and in our influence. If we understand that people in groups are going to be mentally lazier than individuals, we have the potential to influence people through our intentional action. Some individuals step into leadership with the idea that they can get their way by being persuasive in front of a group of people. Through manipulation and coercion, some people wind up leading a flock into dangerous territory. These kinds of leaders are reacting to their own un-confronted fears, and the fears that lead us to seek wealth, power, and safety are never satisfied. Even the wealthiest people often think they need more money to be happy, and even the most powerful people are concerned about their vulnerabilities. Leading because of fear does not create a better world, and it does not create a more satisfying life.
The thieves and scoundrels of the story in John 10 are these sorts of leaders, wrapped up in their own fear to the extent that they bring harm to the people who listen to them. We see and hear this sort of fear-laden persuasion and coercion all the time. They don't really have the best interests of anyone else in mind. If something tragic happens to one of the people they've persuaded, the fear-driven leader might quickly disown that unfortunate soul. Like the hired hand who runs when one of the sheep is snatched up by a wolf, fear-driven people are quick to distance themselves from people who might jeopardize their influence.
A good shepherd isn't consumed by fear. Good leaders know their values and guiding principles, and they also work at dismantling the fears that are likely to be a distraction. They accept that people are often going to stop thinking when they get into a group and start reacting to something, Instead of using this information to take advantage of others for personal gain, a good leader chooses to respond out of a space of those values and guiding principles, influencing a flock toward greater well-being, even when the flock is too busy not thinking to realize what's going on.
You may be skimming past these statements about leaders because you think that you aren't one. The point of the passage, though, is that you are. If you are even thinking about living by a set of meaningful guiding principles, you are in a position to make clearer decisions than the average mob or committee. You can choose to be a sheep, of course. You can shut your brain down when someone else in a group has an idea. You can stop thinking when someone else moves in a direction. That is your prerogative. If you choose to act with integrity to your guiding principles, though, you will influence people. The reality of humanity is that most people will not be willing or able to think through purposeful, intentional responses to the things that spark their anxiety, and being in a group of people diminishes that capacity even further. Should you be willing to act with integrity in the midst of an anxious flock, you might influence people toward well-being that they cannot even imagine in that moment.
Now, the authors of the gospel suggest that a good shepherd lays down life itself, and so many believers look at this as a rather unique role for Jesus. The authors also say that the good shepherd takes life back up again, which becomes interpreted as a resurrection -- another unique role for Jesus. The passage is filled with metaphor, however. What if laying down one's life actually means setting aside one's fears and accepting the vulnerability of living with intention and integrity? What if laying down one's life actually means sacrificing a sense of personal security in order to contribute to the greatest well-being of greatest number of people? Understanding the nature of systems, we cannot actually have well-being in every dimension of our own lives if the people around us aren't experiencing well-being. In this way, perhaps we take our lives back up again. Or perhaps taking life back up again is what happens when we channel our energy toward living with integrity where we once devoted it toward alleviating our irrational fears. It's possible that we can set aside one way of being (fear-driven or sheep-like) for another way of being (intentional and principled). We are potential good shepherds. This is not a unique role.
The authors of the gospel also suggest the value of unity -- one flock for one shepherd. This is perhaps based on a fear of diverse opinions or some other fears. Maybe even rational fears of other people's reactivity. Even in the twenty-first century, people are killing each other over differences of opinion. Unity under one banner would seem to be a superb vision, and yet I can't imagine how such a unity would be accomplished without coercion or manipulation of someone. It may be enough to recognize the palpable tension in society at the time this gospel was written and to accept that the only unity worth achieving would be a unity of free-willed individuals with shared values, living intentionally with one another. Hold it as a vision if you like, but don't let it become another reason to mistreat people who disagree with you.
At the heart of this passage, then, we have choices to make. We can choose to thoughtlessly follow the groups in which we find ourselves, or we can act with our own sense of individuality. Should we choose to act, we can act out of our fears or we can act with intentionality and integrity to our guiding principles. However we choose to act, we will influence others. We can lead others toward doing what we think will alleviate our own anxiety, or we can lead others toward greater well-being. In the words of the passage, we can be thieves and bandits or we can be good shepherds. Or we can be sheep.
A Little Experiment: Move First. Sheep don't lead intentionally, but people can. If you aren't accustomed to making decisions, see what happens if you offer the first suggestions to a group about where to go and what to do. Maybe others will offer their suggestions as well. Leading doesn't mean digging in our heels unless we get our way.
Another Little Experiment: Wait a Minute. Sheep don't lead intentionally, but the first one to move in a direction often influences the entire flock. If you're the usually the first one to offer a suggestion in a group, try hanging back and see if anyone else moves first. You might be surprised what you learn.
A Bigger Experiment: Shepherd Well. When you are in a group, be particularly aware of how your guiding principles inform your behavior. If the group seems to veer in a direction that doesn't align with your guiding principles, state your principles and your concern clearly, and propose the course of action you will take. The group may still head off in a direction that doesn't work for you. You get to decide whether to head off with them or to stick with your principled decision.