We come this week to one of the best known and most endearing descriptions of Jesus, that of the good shepherd. From the gentle portrayals in religious art, to the words of many of our hymns and other music, the symbol of Jesus as the good shepherd is one that has struck a chord in the hearts of many Christians down through the ages. We imagine a kind, bearded figure, gently carrying a lamb across his shoulders, bringing it back to the fold and into his loving care. The image has been the inspiration for much classical music. Even though many of us react against the idea of being described as sheep, nevertheless the image of Christ the good shepherd has endured.
I wonder whether, in rejoicing in the picture of a tall, strong Jesus, who is strolling through idyllic green pastures, carrying the lamb across his shoulders, we might have so domesticated the image, as to render it somewhat ineffective. There is a great deal more punch to the symbol that Jesus presents in the gospel, particularly when compared with the picture of Jesus strolling through pastures more akin to the English countryside than a middle-eastern one. The picture that Jesus actually presents is a much stronger one. The reality of first century shepherding was that it was a much more demanding role than we might imagine from the comfort of our 21st Century lounge-rooms. You may remember than when the young David is trying to impress King Saul that he is indeed capable of defeating Goliath, he says that when one of his sheep is taken by a lion or bear, he would strike the creature down and rescue the sheep. The description of the wolf coming and snatching the sheep was an accurate one. First century shepherding was tough work. The threat of wild animals and thieves was ever present. The ruddy, handsome young David was nevertheless a toughened, athletic man.
Jesus is the good shepherd, the true shepherd, who, unlike the hired hand, the hireling as some versions refer to him, does not run away in the face of such dangers. He knows the sheep and they know him. He does not take off at the first sign of danger. He is there for the fight, protecting the sheep, and ultimately laying down his life for them. It is a strong, powerful image, but one which is also self-sacrificial. Such is the shepherd’s love for the sheep, that he does not withhold his own life, if it means saving theirs.
We might not particularly warm to the idea that we are like sheep, but the image might be more accurate than we care to admit. Individually sheep are not entirely stupid, except perhaps for Merino sheep, but they’re another story! But sheep are not unintelligent creatures. Get them together, however, and their intelligence drops significantly. Human beings are, sadly, often the same. There is a classic example from recent history. The German people of the 1930s were not unintelligent, by any means, but put them in difficult circumstances, give them a gifted leader who plays on their natural prejudices and then inflates them, and suddenly you end up with the population blindly following their leader into madness. Xenophobia is a super way to get otherwise intelligent people to act like idiots.
So, the image of us being like sheep is perhaps more accurate than we care to admit. It’s not a question of whether we will have a shepherd – it is a question of who that shepherd will be. It is not a question of whether we will worship a god – it is a question of who or what that god will be. Jesus is the shepherd we can trust. He is the good shepherd, because he lays down his life for us. We can trust Jesus, because he forgave us, even while being crucified. And he knows us, he knows us intimately.
It was this extraordinary love for his people which caused Jesus to lay down his life for us. Rather than give in to the wolves, to the pressures of society, Jesus chooses to sacrifice himself for us. This notion of the shepherd sacrificing himself for the sheep is an incredible one. The thought of the leader sacrificing himself for the people was virtually unheard of in the ancient world. There may be earlier examples, but I know of none. It remains a difficult concept for us to fathom, although I suspect that we Australians have at least some concept of it with our understanding of Gallipoli and other sacrifices in war. The concept of self-sacrifice for the greater good is not totally lost on us.
The good shepherd does not run away – he stays and defends the sheep. This is God’s promise to us in Jesus. Whenever the wolf approaches, in other words, whenever the forces of darkness threaten us, whenever our own fears and self-loathing threaten us, and whenever outside forces threaten us, Christ the good shepherd will be there for us. Having given his life for us, and now having taken it up again, he remains faithful. We are not abandoned, but rather protected, carried across the shoulders of a strong, young shepherd, who resists the wolf when he threatens us.
The Reverend Dr Theo McCall