Today is “Good Shepherd Sunday”, and let me begin with a confession: all this biblical talk of sheep and shepherds has never done very much for me. I am a city boy, and I didn’t grow up spending long winter nights playing the pan flute to the sheepfold. So my only way into understanding what Jesus means when he says “I am the Good Shepherd” is to reflect on my encounters with sheep and their caregivers in paintings, poems, and movies, and books. Who can forget the sheep in the movie, "Babe"? “Baa, ram, ewe. To your fleece be true. Baa, ram, ewe.”
The book encounter is still the strongest. If you’ve ever read a novel by Thomas Hardy, you know pretty early on that something horrible is going to happen to the main character. So it is with Hardy’s novel "Far From the Madding Crowd". The first character we meet is a shepherd named Gabriel Oak, and in chapter five he awakes in the middle of the night to a sound that only an experienced shepherd would recognize: “the running of the flock with great velocity.” When Gabriel gets out of bed and pursues that sound he discovers that a tragedy has occurred. All two hundred of Gabriel Oak’s sheep have been killed rushing through a broken fence and falling over the edge of a hill. Their death presents a tragedy of both needless suffering and Oak’s financial ruin. As Hardy tells it:
Oak was an intensely humane man . . . His first feeling now was one of pity for the untimely fate of these gentle ewes and their unborn lambs.It was a second to remember another phase of the matter. The sheep were not insured. All the savings of a frugal life had been dispersed at a blow; his hopes of being an independent farmer were laid low -- possibly for ever. [Thomas Hardy, "Far From the Madding Crowd", chapter 5]
Even a city boy has to feel for the loss of all those sheep and what that means for a new and hopeful shepherd. Beyond that, though, Hardy’s description of Gabriel Oak’s feelings at the loss of his sheep illuminates what Jesus says about himself as “the Good Shepherd” in today’s Gospel: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” [John 10.27] Like Gabriel Oak, Jesus feels for the sheep. Like a real shepherd, God has put everything at stake for us human creatures. To call Jesus a Good Shepherd is to say something about who Jesus is and how he is toward us that even city folk need to hear.
One of the most compelling things about today’s Gospel occurs in the interchange about whether or not Jesus is the Messiah. "How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly." [John 10.24b] Now Messiah literally means “the anointed one”, and the anointed one is, of course, the king. For most Jews of Jesus’s day, the hope was for a Messiah, a real king, who would come and establish Jewish independence and throw the occupying Romans out. And here’s another confession: how do we 21st century people think about kings? My greatest association with kingship is the Muppet character [Pa Gorg] in the Jim Henson show "Fraggle Rock" who constantly proclaimed himself “King of the Universe!” even though he had only two subjects.
Now what is curious and wonderful about this interchange in John’s Gospel is Jesus’s non-answer to this question about his kingship. When asked if he is the Messiah, he responds with talk about himself as a shepherd and the people as his sheep. As in the trial before Pilate, when asked if he is King of the Jews, Jesus never claims that title. “You say that I am a king.” [John 18.37b] Jesus’s followers, his enemies, and the public at large persist in calling him “King”. He responds by describing himself as a shepherd.
So how do we understand these two words—“Shepherd” and “King”? The people ask Jesus if he’s a king, and he tells them he is a shepherd. That’s like saying, “Are you President of the United States?” and answering, “I am a Zookeeper”. To a question about power and authority, Jesus responds with an answer of love and relationship.
Seen in this way, this Gospel asks us to ponder two new questions. Question One: Why is it that we keep describing Jesus as “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” in spite of his persistent refusal to use royal language about himself? Question Two: What does Jesus’s claim to be “the Good Shepherd” mean for us in Easter?
As to Question One: On a recent BBC interview, the English children’s author and novelist ["The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ" ] Philip Pullman was asked about his reported remark that the Jesus story was a tragedy. How could one describe the Jesus story as a tragedy? Here is what Pullman said in reply:
It is a tragedy. Jesus’s vision, the vision that Jesus in the New Testament is putting forward . . . is not a vision that could be used as for example a management strategy or a business plan or something of that sort. To that extent he’s a complete revolutionary and destructive of all organizations, all human structures of any sort. . . . [And the cruel irony is that] the only way his memory, his words at all could be preserved was by embodying them in a structure of the sort he would have detested and turned away from and rebelled against with every ounce of passion he had. [BBC "Nightwaves" 4/6/ 2010]
Now Pullman, the son of a Church of England vicar, is extremely critical of official, organized Christianity, but we in the church need to hear what he’s saying. When asked if he’s a king, Jesus replies that he’s a shepherd. Nevertheless, we in the church have persisted in calling him a king. No doubt we do that as a way of honoring and praising him, but it’s just the kind of honor and praise he doesn’t need. Calling Jesus a king inflates him in a way that actually goes against what he stood for. Jesus was, if anything, critical of kingship. Caesar was, to him, part of the problem. Why would he want his title?
The world has followed in recent weeks the painful revelations of priestly abuse in the Roman Catholic Church. We in our own denomination also experience clergy misconduct, including the kind of abuse alleged against Catholic clergy, so we should not smugly point fingers in their direction from afar. Nevertheless, it is no accident that the church with the highest royal theology of itself, still organized in the imperial manner of the late Roman empire, continues to wrestle with the misuse of power by its elites. The result of that abuse of power is the destruction of lives. All this royal pretension has consequences, and it’s clear why Jesus rejected it. Kings use people to satisfy their own ends. Shepherds do not.
So I would answer question one by suggesting that it is easier for us to hold Jesus at a distance by calling him King than by calling him Shepherd. A king is somebody everybody sees but nobody knows. A shepherd is something else again. A shepherd cannot care for sheep at a distance. A shepherd can only tend the flock by knowing and, yes, loving them. We find it easier to talk of Jesus in terms of power than in terms of love. But, as Philip Pullman reminds us, Jesus opposed human power structures with every ounce of passion he had. He refused the title of King.
And that leads us to answering the second question: as this is Easter season, what is the Easter meaning of Jesus’s calling himself “the Good Shepherd”? I begin to find the answer in my own resistance. I want to think of Jesus as a king. I don’t want to think of him as a shepherd. For me to think of him as a shepherd means that I have to think of him as more intimately involved with and closer to me than perhaps I want to. The king is off in his castle doing something remote and royal someplace. A king thinks of me only as a mean to his powerful ends. The shepherd is with and beside me now, involved in what I’m thinking and doing, caring for me, guiding me away from thickets and cliffside fences and toward streams of living water. A shepherd knows me, for good or ill, as I am. To think of Jesus, let alone God, in these terms means that I need to be open to a whole new way of seeing myself in relation to the universe. It means that I’m perhaps less special yet more precious than I thought I was. It means that I find my fulfillment in relationship with others. It means that God is ultimately not about power but about love.
There are many ways to try to understand the radical and transformative beauty of Easter, and here is yet another of them. All through Holy Week, human beings subjected Jesus to all of the indignities that raw power can exert on a human being. By raising Jesus, God has not responded in power but in love. A vengeful God would have given us Jesus back as a King. A loving God gives us Jesus back as our Shepherd. As sheep with a shepherd, so you and I are in the care of One who suffers for and with us, One who has invested everything in us, One who cannot be fully who that One is without us. Subjects mean little to a King. Sheep mean everything to a Shepherd.
Jesus is your and my Good Shepherd. Your power, your status, your achievements impress neither Jesus nor God. Your failings, your pain, your weakness, your brokenness mean everything to them. You and I are in the loving care and embrace of One who knows how difficult it is to be us. Rightly understood, that love and care and embrace are what bind us together to praise God and to serve broken human beings both in here and out there. Jesus is our Good Shepherd. He loves, cares for, and embraces you and me and gathers us in love and freedom around his table. Let us go forth in his shepherdly care ourselves to love, feed, serve, and bless each other and the world. Amen.