Thieves and Robbers

Our first reading today from the Acts of the Apostles reminds us that the first tangible result of the Resurrection is the formation of a new community, regarding itself as the renewed, authentic Israel, the true people of God. That implies judgement on any other community calling itself Israel; the Christian Church is born in schism and conflict with the parent Judaism. The marks of this are all over the New Testament, as we have often remarked. It would be a shame to take this as an excuse for anti-semitism, or as the only way to understand or appreciate our Jewish neighbours. We need to take into account that our scriptures were written in a certain time and place, when certain things had an immediate importance that perhaps they do not have for us today. The problem indeed is how to read these texts in ways that address the things that matter to our time and place.

Our Gospel reading from John 10 draws a contrast between Jesus the good shepherd who brings abundant life for the sheep, and other, false, shepherds who are really only thieves and robbers. In context, this follows on from the story of the healing of the man blind from birth (John 9) who is rejected by the Pharisees for his adherence to Jesus the sabbath-breaker and cast out of the synagogue. It seems that for the Evangelist it is the leaders of rabbinic judaism who are the “thieves and robbers”, so that the Good Shepherd has to lead his own out from the jewish fold into a new flock, which will also contain sheep from another, Gentile, fold.

We might profitably reflect on how this new christian community, this new flock of the true Shepherd, contrasts with other possible flocks. Or, to put it another way, what causes other leaders to be written off as “thieves and robbers”?  The official community of Jesus’ time, as embodied in the Temple, its practices and its authorities, appears to have been regarded as a tool for exploitation of the poor by the rich. “You have made my house of prayer a den of robbers” is Jesus’ own judgement; but he wasn’t the only one to think this. We know that when the rebels in the Jewish war of 66-70 AD occupied the Temple, they burnt the records of debts that were housed there. Insofar as the religious authorities had become agents of financial oppression and exploitation, they deserve the phrase “thieves and robbers”.

Another expression of judaism is that represented by the Pharisees, whose name is said to mean “The separated ones”. Their laudable concern to obey God’s Law perfectly inevitable led to the exclusion of those who would not or could not do the same. This philosophy helped to create the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” to whom Jesus felt a particular mission, to restore them to their heritage stolen from them by the (self-)righteous.

Yet another strand in judaism of the time was the violent strand of rebellion, as exemplified by the “Zealot” movement, the IRA men, whose intermittent campaign of guerilla warfare led to full-scale war against Rome and the destruction of the Temple, AD 70, and again to the dispersal of Jewry in 130s. Many passages in the New Testament can be read as an appeal to forsake the way of violence: “If only you had known the things that make for peace”, Jesus laments over Jerusalem in Luke’s Gospel. In the Passion story, it is Barrabbas the robber, imprisoned for insurrection and murder, who represents this way of life, so diametrically opposed to the way of Jesus the Good Shepherd, who does not take life but gives it abundantly through laying down his own life for the sheep.

So the way of the Good Shepherd is seen to be: not exploitative; not exclusive in the sense of putting up barriers to keep people out; not destructive or violent, but rather self-sacrificing. This is what appears in the Acts account of that first, idealised, christian flock; where generosity and sharing of goods replace exploitation of weak by strong; where the emphasis on togetherness and community will develop to include all whom God calls, whether jew or samaritan or pagan, and where the barrier markers of kosher food and circumcision will be set aside. And as the story in Acts proceeds, we will discover that this is a flock that will follow the Shepherd in its willingness to lay down its life in martyrdom, in witness to the love that is stronger than death.

These then are marks of the community of the Good Shepherd: not exploitative, but generous and sharing. Not concerned to exclude all but the perfect or the elect, but welcoming all whom God calls. Rejecting violence and violent self-assertion, in favour of the meekness of the Cross. It cannot be said that the Christian churches have always lived up to this. In the power-games that occur at international level and at local level there is always the temptation to employ force to get one’s own way, or to manipulate money to one’s own advantage, or to exclude one group or another. So we need to listen carefully for the voice of the Good Shepherd and to make sure that we haven’t been tricked by the thieves into becoming like the robbers.

 

 

 

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