St. John says plainly that Jesus was using a figure of speech that the disciples did not understand. It’s not often that John, the most mystical and challenging of the gospels, gives us a straight-up hint as to what’s going on. But here he does just that. John is telling us not to take this teaching literally, because it can’t be done. A figure of speech is something that points beyond itself, in this case to abundant life.
Jesus tells us, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Abundant life is a life that is fulfilling, challenging, varied, and deeply satisfying. It’s so much more than just existing. And it’s so often misconstrued. Popular culture would tell us that “abundance” has to do with quantity – material wealth; success as the world measures it; popularity and fame. But all those are hollow and transient. Abundance has nothing to do with earthly treasures. Rabbi Hyman Schnactel, who led congregations in New York and Houston, has famously said that happiness consists not of having what you want – but of wanting what you have. And psychologists attempting to measure this idea have consistently found that the real abundant life can be found any time we turn outward rather than inward. Relationship, purpose, creativity, purpose, meaning – all those things that require us to love one another, to engage with one another, to use our God-given gifts to help and care for one another – that’s where we find life’s abundance. The abundant life adds to the life of others and the world. It’s life that leads to life, love that leads to love, joy that leads to joy… It does not add to the pain of the world but adds to and enhances life, our own as well as others’. That’s where abundance is to be found. And we find those green pastures by following the true shepherd.
The shepherd, of course, is Jesus, as John’s gospel tells us. But as Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension reminds us, part of the reason he came to be among us was to equip us to be like Jesus to others. If abundant living is to be found in relationship to one another, you and I might find that we also act as shepherds. Who have we cared for and sheltered? And who has led and guided us along the way? If we reflect on it, we might well find that all of us are both sheep and shepherd, sometimes being cared for, kept safe, and nourished; and sometimes we are given the awesome gift and responsibility of looking after, checking on, and healing others. The very virus that is keeping us distant is giving us new opportunities to act as shepherds. What happens when we pick up the phone and call to check on another person in our church family? What happens when we take a few minutes to send a note or a card to someone else? Social distancing does not cut off all forms of care! It encourages us to be creative in finding ways both to nourish and to be nourished.
But what about those thieves and bandits? If we keep before us Jesus’ bottom line here – that we may have life abundantly – we realize that Jesus is not talking about possessions but those things that steal our lives and deplete our abundance.
Thieves and bandits operate by stealth. We usually don’t discover that they’ve been here until after the fact. It happens with that abundant life as well. How did we get to this point? Where did the time go? What about the regrets and wrong turns in our lives? Have you and I ever taken a relationship for granted? Ever gotten too comfortable, too complacent, and let someone down as a result?
I will confess that I like to watch a certain type of reality television – programs such as Intervention and Hoarders. These programs reach out to people whose lives have become unmanageable. They bring in both loved ones and professionals to try to bring these individuals back to abundant life. My family teases me about liking such programs, but I watch them for the redemptive possibilities. Over and over, these people explain that they’re not quite sure how it happened that they got to this point. They just know that there is no longer any abundance for them. “I know I can’t keep living this way,” they say. These shows are no fairy tales. They don’t guarantee any happy endings. But I find redemption and hope and Jesus in the way that, over and over again, family members and professionals serve as shepherds for these lost sheep. Over and over again, through relationship and God-given gifts, they restore the abundance.
The people featured on these programs are in a metaphorical den of thieves. They know that their patterns and behaviors are destructive. They know that they’ve fallen and they don’t think they have what it takes to get back up. They know that they are broken, but they don’t know how to ask for help. And that’s just like you, and just like me. We might not be hoarders and we might not be addicted to drugs, but every one of us has known the sin of pride, the sense of not knowing the way forward, the horrible feeling that the walls are closing in.
When our lives feel dark and small – where do we go for the abundance that feeds us and brings sunlight and vitality to our days? How can we learn to want what we have? The habits of faith can strengthen us, carry us over the rough patches, and equip us so that we can live abundantly and share that abundance with those around us.
When we have Jesus standing at the gates of our hearts this day, we find the strength and the courage to turn away the thieves – the voices that tell us that we’re worthless, that no one cares, that our little efforts won’t make a difference. The habits of prayer, of scripture, of the love of God tell us differently. These practices drown out the thieves of negativity and remind us that every one of us, as a baptized child of God, has the Good Shepherd providing us with abundant life – not so that we can keep it to ourselves, but so that we can find creative ways to share ourselves with others, even in the midst of a pandemic, that we can love one another because God has first loved us. The Chinese sage Lao Tzu said, Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength. Loving someone deeply gives you courage. In these times, we need both strength and courage more than ever. And it is through the abundant life in Christ that we receive it.