Scriptures for this Sunday are Here.
If you grew up going to church and Sunday school, you probably heard a lot about shepherds and sheep. You might have done that Sunday school craft where you glue cotton balls to paper sheep cutouts so they look like puffy, woolly sheep. You might have memorized the 23rd Psalm, as I did, though you probably memorized it in the King James version, and were slightly annoyed when we recited a different version of it a minute ago. You might have seen lots of pictures of Jesus the good shepherd, and if you did, my guess is that they looked something like this: romantic, soft-focus pictures where the sheep and shepherd look very clean and happy.
Or maybe like this: hearts and rainbows!
But the fact is, the Good Shepherd image was never intended to be soft focus or romantic. People in ancient Israel who heard about shepherds were likely to picture something more like this – an African tribesman tending his sheep.
Or like this – a modern Palestinian shepherd who probably looks a lot like the shepherds of Jesus’ time.
Shepherds in ancient Israel were considered to be, not clean and romantic, but dirty and irreligious. They couldn’t fulfill religious rituals like washing before meals, they lived outdoors, they were probably smelly, uneducated in scriptures, illiterate, they didn’t really know how to act around people because they spent all their time alone, so they were outcast, lowly, poor people. But they knew their sheep by name, and their sheep would go where they called.
The great king David, who wrote the 23rd Psalm, started life as a lowly shepherd boy, so he understood what shepherding was all about. He was famous for protecting his sheep from lions and bears. To the owner, the life of the sheep was worth far more than the life of the shepherd. So the shepherd risked his own life to protect his sheep.
So when Jesus begins talking about being Good Shepherd in today’s gospel, he is hearkening back to strong Jewish tradition, both cultural and scriptural. Frequently in the scriptures, Israel is referred to as the sheep, Israel’s leaders as the shepherds, God as the ultimate shepherd. And the leaders of Israel often are seen as wicked shepherds who fail the sheep, even turning against them and devouring them (figuratively).
One of most famous examples of this in the scriptures is in the book of the prophet Ezekiel Chapter 34, where the prophet, speaking in God’s voice, pronounces judgment against the leaders of Israel, shepherds who have turned against their sheep, who don’t protect the sheep, who use them for their own gain:
Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds 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.
For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.
I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God.
At the time Ezekiel said these things, King David had been dead for centuries. So God is not literally saying David will be the shepherd – God is saying that he will send a Messiah, a shepherd in the tradition of David.
It’s with this prophecy in mind that Jesus starts talking today about being the good shepherd, because he has just come out of a conflict with the rulers of the Temple in Jerusalem. In John Chapter 9, just before today’s gospel, Jesus healed a blind man. The Temple leaders threw the formerly blind man out of the Temple for telling the truth, that Jesus healed him. Jesus went and found the formerly blind man, and said, “Follow me.” In other words, Jesus was strengthening the weak, healing the sick, seeking out the lost, doing what God said he would do in Ezekiel.
Jesus’ proclamation that he is the Good Shepherd is a judgment against the rulers of the Temple, who are acting for own gain, who are the “hired hands” who don’t protect the sheep, but who run away from danger. It is a pronouncement that Jesus stands in the place of God, who says, I myself will be the shepherd of the sheep. Jesus says these Temple leaders are the hired hands, but I’m the Good Shepherd. And it is a proclamation that Jesus is the Messiah; Jesus is claiming to be one with God. This is serious stuff here, because Jesus knows that this claim will get him killed – “he lays down his life for sheep” is not just sentimental metaphor. Jesus knows exactly where claims like this will get him – to the cross. This is not a story about soft edges, hearts & rainbows – this is about life and death.
So good – what does that have to do with us? We know Jesus is the Messiah, we say every week in the Nicene Creed that he is God, the second person of the Holy Trinity. Why should any of this be a surprise to us? Why not picture it in hearts & rainbows, since we know how the story ends, with resurrection?
Here’s why: because we are the Body of Christ. The mission that Jesus started is the one that we are commanded to continue, in his name. Oh, we’re not called to be the Messiah – there was only one of those. And most of us will not be called to lay our life down for our faith – there are plenty of Christians in this world who give their lives for their Christian faith, still today, but not us comfortable North Americans. No, we are free to proclaim ourselves Christians all we want.
But – we are still leaders, shepherds of God’s people, as followers of Christ. As Christians, we trust ourselves to the hands of the Good Shepherd. And in turn, he trusts us to abide in his love and share that love with others. So as a church, as a body, we are called to be shepherds to our community, to strengthen the weak, heal the sick, bind up the injured, seek out the lost. We are called to care for the physical, financial, and material needs of those who surround us. As the first letter of John says, “we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” We are called to use what God has given us to share with those in need.
And we are also called to care for the spiritual needs of those around us – seeking out those who have not heard the news of God’s love and God’s sacrifice for them, telling them of the loving relationship with God we are given through Jesus Christ.
That’s the mission of the church, no two ways about it – not just to care for those inside the church, but also to seek out those outside the church. Because God loves those lost sheep just as much as God loves us.
But what about each of us, individually? What’s our mission as followers of Christ? How are we shepherds of the good news that Jesus has given us?
I was fascinated a couple of weeks ago to read an editorial in the NYTimes by David Brooks, a conservative columnist who has just finished a sabbatical in which he wrote a book, The Road to Character. In his column about where this book came from, he wrote:
ABOUT once a month I run across a person who radiates an inner light. These people can be in any walk of life. They seem deeply good. They listen well. They make you feel funny and valued. You often catch them looking after other people and as they do so their laugh is musical and their manner is infused with gratitude. They are not thinking about what wonderful work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all.
In an interview with NPR, he described these people:
I would come across people who just — they just glowed. I remember I was up in Frederick, Md., visiting some people who tutor immigrants; they teach them English and how to read. And I walk in a room — 30 people, mostly women, probably 50 to 80 years old — and they just radiated a generosity of spirit, they radiated a patience and most of all they radiated gratitude for life. And I remember thinking: ‘You know, I’ve achieved career success in life, but I haven’t achieved that. What they have is that inner light that I do not have. And I’ve only got one life — I’d like to at least figure out how to get there.’
As he wondered about these people, it occurred to him that there are two sets of human virtues: resume virtues and eulogy virtues – and while everyone agrees that eulogy virtues like love, kindness, and compassion are more important, our society spends all its time working on resume virtues – we learn them in school, we spend our careers developing them, we build our identities around them.
So he set to work researching people who had extraordinary eulogy virtues, to find out what makes them different –people as disparate as Dorothy Day, Dwight Eisenhower, George Eliot, Frances Perkins. And he decided they had several qualities.
They had humility – they were profoundly honest about their own weaknesses, and took steps to overcome them – they knew their biggest sin. For Eisenhower, his biggest sin was his temper. So he did things like, in private, write the names of the people he didn’t like on pieces of paper and tear them up, so that in public he could be calm and even-tempered. He made himself into a low-key, even-tempered person.
These folks realized their own dependency – they were not self-made loners, but they understood that they were surrounded by a web of connections that helped them be who they are, and they made deep, unconditional commitments to the others around them. They each had an experience of energizing love – an experience of love that redefined them from the inside out – love of a child, love of another that required giving of oneself.
They spent their time answering what they believe is a calling, whether it was career or family or something else. They made moral decisions according to their own conscience – they left social mores and judgments behind and devoted their lives to what they believed was right.
These are not specifically Christian virtues – some of the folks he researched were Christians, some were not. But I would say that these values are deeply in line with who we are called to become as Christians and as followers of the Good Shepherd.
The Good Shepherd is profoundly devoted to the welfare of his flock, and that is what we are called to be in our lives too. We are called to be transformed from the inside out by an experience of love – love of others, that changes our lives, and love of God, to whom we grow closer and closer as we devote ourselves to worship and prayer and the Christian life.
We are called to make deep commitments to the people we love and to the world around us – answering the calling of God to become shepherds, leaders in our families, workplaces, and communities, changing our world for the better. We are called to a life of humility, recognizing and overcoming our own weaknesses, and rejoicing in our interdependence with those around us. And we are called to a life of self-giving service.
As Jesus gave his life for the sheep, for us, so we are to spend our lives building up the world around us – because we are the shepherds who follow in the way of our Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ our Lord.