I have a love-hate relationship with the image of “shepherd” when referring to God and/or Jesus.
Christians, myself included, love to do it. But I kind of hate that we do it because, well, we often do it for the wrong reasons. We often do it out of a sentimental idea of what a shepherd is, was, or does.
I’m meditating on the shepherd image this week because this coming Sunday is both Good Shepherd Sunday (where we’ll hear John 10:1-10 as well as Psalm 23), and also the Sunday when we’ll meet and vote on a new candidate to be one of our shepherds here at GSLC.
Uhm, it would do you good to read at least John 10:1-10 before continuing, ok? Good. Onward.
On the one hand, we love to throw this image around liberally, honoring the fact that the image of God/Jesus as shepherd is very comforting and used through at least eight books in the New Testament, not to mention a number of places in the Hebrew Scriptures.
On the other hand, we have to wrestle with the fact that in the ancient, first-century world of Judaism and early Christianity, shepherds had become part of the category of people that you couldn’t associate with and be considered “clean.” A shepherd’s testimony wouldn’t hold water in court (and neither would a woman’s testimony). They were seen as unreliable. And while the Hebrew writings did analogize a good king to being a good shepherd, it did so mostly as an appeal to an idyllic past that never really existed. In short: they did it out of sentimentality, not esteem.
The shepherd, in that first century, was suspect. Scandalous.
[As a bit of an aside: It’s a wonder, then, that in the Gospel of Luke the shepherds are the first to hear of Jesus birth and “tell everyone,” even though their testimony wouldn’t hold up in court. And, likewise, it is women who first witness the resurrection and go and tell everyone, even though their testimony wouldn’t hold up in court. It’s almost as if Luke is telling you that the kind of scandalous people Jesus would associate with is the kind of scandalous person you should get used to both trusting and becoming!]
The idea of God, and particularly Jesus, as the Good Shepherd is, like all good metaphors, beautifully broken. Yes, it can be comforting, but it should also be a bit scandalous.
This one you follow will keep you safe, but may not always take you places where you feel safe.
Early Christians used the 23rd Psalm as a model for the Christian life: you grazed on the green pages of the scriptures, were dunked in the cool waters of baptism, and anointed with healing oil. You had a meal spread before you in the presence of everyone, including your enemies, and your cup ran over: obvious Eucharistic imagery for the early church. This was all catechism and discipleship imagery for the first Christians.
And, of course, you walked through the valley of the shadow of death, where the Shepherd’s rod and staff (perhaps the two pieces of wood that form a cross?), reassure you that you will be OK.
While that sounds comforting, it doesn’t sound like it’s entirely comfortable. And that’s the point. The Christian life is not about being comfortable, it’s about going where the Shepherd leads.
In John 10:1-10 we have Jesus assuming a two-fold image, as both the shepherd and the gate through which the sheep enter the pasture. It’s only really two-fold until you understand that the ancient, untrustworthy, unreliable-in-the-eyes-of-the-world shepherd would sleep in the gap between the fence posts at night, thereby becoming the gate not primarily to keep the sheep in (though there is that), but primarily to keep the thief out.
The shepherd as gate will even, if need be, become food for the hungry lion-thief. The sheep are primarily safe because the shepherd will be with them, care for them, and die for them. We miss this if we only think of Jesus as the gentle one who tenderly watches out for us.
Jesus is also the scandalous one who eats with the sinner, forgives us because we don’t know what we do, and gives of his life for us who so often listen to other siren voices.
The Good Shepherd is not about sentimentality. Sentimentality chokes the truth, the deeper truth that God/Jesus as shepherd is less about comfort and more about self-giving love.
If we see the Good Shepherd as some sort of strongman who, by their rightness of thought and correctness of doctrine, lead the sheep into the security and comfort of being the righteous ones “all the days of their lives,” we miss the bigger point.
The Good Shepherd is the one who, by their rightly-focused attention on the others, by their self-giving love and correctness of spirit, lead the sheep into those communal places where they can learn to be more like the shepherd, giving of their lives for the sake of the world, dwelling in that spirit, that “house of the Lord, forever.”
The Good Shepherd leads the sheep from the living death of “being comfortable” to the death-defying life of faith. In the court of the world, the idea of giving of yourself for others doesn’t really hold water, at least not in the win-consume-achieve culture we’ve created for ourselves. Sure, we sentimentalize it some with philanthropy awards, but if we’re really honest, we look after ourselves and our own first and foremost, and we kind of secretly want the good shepherd to protect that world.
And yet, that’s not where the shepherd is leading us.
The shepherd leads us to look past ourselves, across the cool-water river of baptism, into the valley of shadows. And so we go there, following the Shepherd’s lead, knowing that, even if we end up losing our lives on this journey of giving of ourselves for the sake of others, the rod and the staff of the cross will never let death have the final say.
So, fellow flock-ers at Good Shepherd, how are we going to give of ourselves for the sake of Raleigh for the balance of 2017? How are you, personally, going to give of yourself to ensure that we can support our orphans in Africa, call and welcome a new pastor to serve in our midst, and continue to feed the bodies and souls of those we see around us?
Church is not a place for sentimentality. If we have too much of it, we miss the point of having a Good Shepherd at all.
See you in church.