Greetings, SBT Readers!
If there is a single word that sums up the relationship between the Good Shepherd and his sheep, it is "intimacy"; the knowing that goes beyond acquaintanceship, beyond friendship, beyond blood-relationship. This is the knowing of the Song of Songs, the love of the Lover for his Beloved, the unity in which there is neither "I" nor "Thou" but only "We." This love, this knowing, cannot be expressed by language which reduces Jesus to a sibling ("Jesus our brother"), nor by imagery of King/subjects, Master/ servants, Judge/ sinners, Creator/ creatures... Though we are, indeed, subjects, servants, sinners, and creatures, we are so much more-- but do we know this and teach this? Isn't our God-language limiting and doesn't our catechesis/ preaching/ evangelizing tend to be dry and uninviting? Throughout John's Gospel, we find glimpses of this intimacy, expressions of God's passionate desire to be one with humanity. When we come across such glimpses, we need to pause and allow the text to open our minds to a God who is so much more vast than the God we preach and profess to know. Then, perhaps, we will discover this truth:
"Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is." 1 Jn 3:1-2.
“I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. A hired man, who is not a shepherd and whose sheep are not his own, sees a wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away, and the wolf catches and scatters them. This is because he works for pay and has no concern for the sheep.
I am the good shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I will lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd. Jn 10:11-18
While it is unlikely that many C21st Christians have much contact with sheep or shepherds, the image of Jesus the Good Shepherd continues to nurture and comfort the faithful. Somehow, the pastoral symbolism tugs at our hearts, awakening in us the sense of his love, care, and mercy, even when we have gone astray. So powerful is this imagery that we look to our clergy and lay religious leaders to shepherd us as well. From the title, "pastor," to the concept of "pastoral ministry, the Christian experience is replete with references to sheep and shepherds. In Western Christianity, our bishops even carry crosiers that resemble a shepherd's crook, curved at the top as if to "hook" wayward animals. Then there is that most popular of psalms -- Psalm 23-- which, traditionally, we have come to read Christologically. For Christians, can this psalm refer to anyone but Jesus? "My Shepherd is the Lord, Nothing indeed shall I want..." And is any Christmas complete without the resounding strains of Handel's All We Like Sheep Have Gone Astray, based on Isaiah 53:6?
Jesus' own identification with the "Good Shepherd" is what has made this image so enduring --and endearing! In the first place, he doesn't say merely say he is LIKE a shepherd but that he IS the Good Shepherd. This self-revelation carries several layers:
- He will die for the sake of his sheep
- Unlike the hireling who works for wages, he cares for his sheep because they belong to him
- Unlike the hireling who runs at the first sign of the wolf, he will protect his sheep
- He knows his sheep intimately and they know him, in a relationship that mirrors his relationship with the One who sent him
- His concern extends beyond the fold to those sheep who are still on the outside; these, too, he will call by name and they will respond
- He desires to be the one shepherd, with one flock
The world has always been full of both hirelings and wolves and this, too, gives the symbol of the Good Shepherd universal relevance. "Hirelings" are driven solely by the profit motive, not by servant leadership, nor by altruism, nor by the desire to save the planet. They do the bare minimum to stay employed, delivering nothing more than their contract stipulates, and baling out as quickly as they can when threats and challenges surface-- even if those entrusted to them are left vulnerable and defenseless. To save their skins, they sometimes cooperate with the wolves, endangering the sheep and betraying the sacred trust their employers placed in them.
As for the wolves, it takes a Good Shepherd to recognize them. We all know that wolves can appear in sheep's clothing -- and in shepherd's clothing as well! The Good Shepherd not only detects the wolfish-looking wolves but also those great deceivers who so easily take in the flock, sometimes through flattery, and sometimes through false promises and other forms of seduction. Always on guard, the Good Shepherd drives away the wolves and searches for lost sheep, never resting until the last muddied, bramble-torn, mutton-brained sheep comes home.