Saturday, April 12, 2008
Shepherd and sheep
When I was quite young I would go to church with my grandmother. Grandma lived in a small town in northern Missouri. Her little church had a very bad stained-glassed window over the baptistery. It was of the Good Shepherd with a lamb slung over the shoulders of Jesus. I guess it was the way that the sun that came through, or the paranoia of a 4 year old, but that lamb looked caught and very much a prisoner. At some level I knew that the shepherd was supposed to be Jesus and the little lamb was supposed to be me.
We moved to Texas when I was four. There, shepherds and sheep were not high on the social calendar. Sheep were seen as evil animals that ate the grass down so that cattle could not graze after them. To call a man a “sheep herder” was fighting words which the boys used to try out on play grounds or on the way home from school. Never was lamb served in our home—it was rarely available in the stores. Even today, my Texas relatives do not eat lamb. Ham is the traditional Easter dinner.
With this background, it has always been difficult to preach on the fourth Sunday after Easter. The relationship between shepherd and sheep in the Bible makes it difficult today to get at the relationship between the faithful and God. Sheep have the reputation of being smelly, stupid creatures in present-day culture, although there are some studies presently that sheep are smarter than once thought. They are herd-oriented creatures and in modern American culture, we are adverse to living as a flock.
But for the ancient Israelites the flock was what gave value to their existence. Nomadic herders, the forbearers of Israelite society were like the present day Masai of Africa—their whole culture revolved and evolved around their herds of sheep and goats. Their language, their ways of describing social issues grew out of their observations of their “cash crop”—their flocks. And even when the ancient Israelites began to become agriculturalists, they continued to use “flock” language to describe their relationships: The leader of human society was considered to be a shepherd—one who had care for his flock. It is not a mere historical truth that young David is out tending the sheep when Nathan comes to anoint the chosen king of Israel. It was a necessary part of the understanding of the people. The leaders of the people were shepherds of the people. The people were not sheep—the leaders were shepherds. And that is an important distinction to make if we are going to understand the image of the Good Shepherd from scripture.
Shepherds of the people, the leaders of nations, had to look after their people. That was important to this image. We need but look at Ezekiel 34 to note how the people of Jesus’ day and the people of John’s day understood what leadership was supposed to be. Ezekiel, 600 years before Jesus’ era, excoriated the leaders of the people because they saw to their own well-being and not to the well-being of the people. There was an understanding that the leaders of the people were to be ones who saw to the needs of the poor, the widow and orphan and those who “fell through the cracks” of law.
Many of the expectations we have of public office today center on the image of the Good Shepherd: politicians are supposed to lead with the thought of the whole in mind, not just their own personal or ideological welfare. Oh, that we could expect present-day political leaders to lead with the concern of the Good Shepherd! It is a great image for God, but it is a difficult image to live up to as a politician, pastor or a leader of any kind.
I have always found it difficult to separate the image of the shepherd from the sheep. They are intricately entwined. If the image of the Shepherd God is who keeps me fed and watered and safe as Psalm 23 says, it does imply that I am not capable of doing such things myself. And this is an image that simply goes against the entire spiritual, psychological, and sociological truths that have evolved over the past 500 years. Those with faith in God are liberated to use the faculties that God has given them in salvation.
I am not a sheep and neither are you. The relationship that God has with us is not one of shepherd to sheep; it is the relationship of God to the created. My novice mistress used to say that the Incarnation was the “Great Condescension”—God condescending to be human. I see it in a different way: I see the Incarnation as the lifting of humanity to a type of equality of spirit so that humanity is no longer debased and depraved—if it ever was. The Incarnation—God becoming human--allows humanity the hope of divinity. And while God protects and provides, God never takes over our will. We may not be herded.
This is why I believe that the image of the Good Shepherd for God or for Jesus is no longer viable. It may have fit with the need of John to align Jesus with the prophets of ancient Israelite memory. But for today, the relationship of sheep and shepherd needs to be taken with a great grain of salt.