Some images stand the test of time, but alas, the image of the good shepherd is not one of them.
Our 21st century knowledge of what shepherds do today must inevitably distort our picture of what a shepherd would need to do to be a good shepherd. These days, shepherds in the West are not typically over stressed. Typically there will be all sorts of aids available to make the job relatively straightforward. Most shepherds I have met have access to a farm bike, sheep dog assistants – and the wonderful inventions of barbed wire and modern steel gates to keep the sheep safe when unattended. If it rains the shepherd is usually protected by waterproof gear and can always leave the sheep to it and seek shelter for himself. In the unlikely event of a rogue dog worrying the sheep there is always a rifle somewhere handy. The shepherd often returns to the farmhouse for a comfortable night’s sleep and now-days is often paid above the minimum rate for unskilled workers.
While Jesus is clear enough in likening himself to the good shepherd, religious art of the sort deemed appropriate for Sunday schools has not helped much with the image. At the Sunday school I attended all those years ago I remember a picture of a man clearly of European descent with a beard and a kind expression, wearing a shining white cloak carrying a dear little lamb in his arms while other lambs gambolled at his feet. From what I have since learned, this image could not be more misleading.
For those first Century listeners, the image Jesus uses would have had far more impact. Not for the shepherd in those days to have the luxury of wire fences or steel hinged gates. Sheep have notoriously poor vision which is why of course they simply follow the sheep ahead of them. Without the advantage of sheep dogs the shepherd would need to be so familiar to the sheep that they would follow where he led, otherwise they would most certainly starve for the grass was sparse.
The Judean central plateau stretches from Hebron to Bethel – something like 35 miles long and in most places about 15 miles across. This area was not lush grass – more like stubble on the low hills and without a shepherd keeping a constant watch the sheep would wander far and wide with disastrous consequences.
While there were no farm fences, if you walked across this area, every so often you might come across a sheep fold built for communal use, a roughly circular stone wall with a gap to let in the sheep for the night. To stop the sheep wandering out, the shepherd would simply lie across the gap – becoming the gate. If the shepherd was any good the sheep would know his voice, which would be very handy if more than one shepherd had two or more flocks in the enclosure. In the morning, the shepherd would call and those sheep who knew his voice would respond and follow him back to the hills where the pastures lay. But although the shepherd would need to be caring with his own animals – gentle he most certainly was not. There were animals prepared to attack the sheep including wild dogs, hyenas, wolves, and in Jesus day, even the occasional lion. There were also those prepared to use force to steal sheep. Food could be scarce. Perhaps rather than thinking of those saccharine sweet pictures of shepherds deemed suitable for the Sunday school, we should instead be thinking rather of the shepherd boy David, with his accuracy with a sling sufficient to bring down the giant Goliath, and who would presumably have had his skills honed firing stones to drive off the wild animals.
Shepherds had a constant fascination for the Jews and although most were cordially despised (more than one modern commentator likening them to used car salesmen or thieving gypsies) yet the notion of the shepherd was a constant theme particularly in the Old Testament. God himself was sometimes pictured as a shepherd – from where for example we find the Psalm 23 “the Lord is my shepherd” or Psalm 95 where we see: “He is our God and we are the people of his pasture”. In the New Testament we encounter the word Pastor – which in Latin means shepherd.(see for example Ephesians 4:11)
The Jews saw particular value in the shepherd who would seek out the lost sheep. They have a legend which claims that when Moses was a young man tending his father- in –law’s flock, a young kid suddenly took off from the other animals in the flock. It ran down a ravine where it found a natural spring where it began to drink. Moses followed it and when he came across the kid drinking he is supposed to have said: “I didn’t realise you ran away because you are thirsty. Now you must be weary”. He lifted the kid and took it back to the other animals on his shoulder. Then says the story: “God said ‘because you have shown pity in leading back one of a flock belonging to a man, you shall lead my flock Israel’ ”
Where the good shepherd bit comes, is not so much in the loving carrying of the defenceless kid or lamb, but rather in the reaction to genuine danger. The good shepherd then had to be prepared to put his life on the line to protect his sheep. Literally when danger came there would presumably be the choice either to beat a strategic retreat or to stay to fight off those who would steal his sheep. Whether they be robbers or wild animals, the real question would be whether the shepherd would stand his ground. Not all shepherds would be good in the sense that they would put their lives on the line. From the fact that shepherds were considered amongst the lowest class in Jesus day also suggests that bad shepherds rather than good shepherd were probably the norm.
That Jesus would be numbered amongst the good in terms of personal bravery would certainly follow from the gospel accounts. One who was prepared to speak up against powerful authority figures, one who cleared the Temple, one who faced an angry crowd in Judea who made to stone Jesus – then a short time later one who returned to that same unfriendly Judea, does not suggest a timid leader. That Jesus set his face to Jerusalem knowing that death was likely to be his lot suggests one prepared to sacrifice his own life rather than his principles. Jesus was also one prepared to be seen caring about the untouchables in his society, the lepers, the tax-collector, the prostitute, the Samaritan woman, and in the expression of his compassion, that he understood healing was more than healing the body is clear from a number of his interactions.
So much for the straightforward part of Jesus’ intended image. What is less straightforward is when we transfer the image to the present. Very clearly Jesus is no longer physically present, no matter where you are on the theological spectrum when it comes to the resurrection. When people are in danger, Jesus does not appear from the nearest phone box as a transformed Clark Kent or come swooping down on an elastic thread like Spider Man. So if he is really a protective shepherd we might well ask what Jesus means for us today when he is recorded as claiming to be the good shepherd for those who follow.
We can get something of a clue from what happened in the aftermath of the crucifixion. Last week it was Thomas, disappointed and extremely doubtful about stories of the resurrection. Yet it was that same Thomas who found his faith sufficiently strengthened that he went off in his turn to be a shepherd to the people in South India. Paul came later to his faith, initially one who was suspicious of Christianity and prepared to persecute Christians. By his own account, something happened to Paul, transforming him into someone prepared to shepherd the young Church. Through his teachings, his actions and his letters, many had their faith strengthened.
There is something contagious in courage in the face of adversity and a courageous person with a message of compassion may also be seen as an expression of Christ. I am not a Catholic, yet in reading the stories of those who led the way I acknowledge I see many marks of the good shepherd in the recorded lives of many now called saints. Whether or not others will find in us some of the properties of a good shepherd is not a straightforward matter.
Not all shepherds are good shepherds. In the old days the shepherd was the last line of defence and the temptation for the bad shepherds was simply to avoid the problem by walking or even running away. In reality there is good and bad in most of us and if Peter, generally acknowledged to be the leader of the disciples, could deny his Lord at a crucial time, I guess for those of us who do not share his responsibilities, the temptation is not to be seen as the one who confronts the danger on behalf of others.
Although the dangers have changed the need for the good shepherds are as real as ever. In many cases the danger comes from the wolves who try to blend in with the flock. The money lenders who prefer to be seen as providing essential social services, the politicians who would rather sacrifice their constituents than face genuine problems of injustice found in unpopular causes. There are for example church leaders who willingly set up committees to deal with immediate issues rather than take the obvious action which might require inconvenience. There are also those who see the Church as a institution separate from the world, and as shown by the issues they embrace they have no genuine interest in the realities of the dangers faced outside the safety of the Church.
Dressing like a shepherd, accepting the appropriate title of pastor, priest or even bishop complete with the bishop’s crook certainly symbolises the intention to be a good shepherd, but in reality we should acknowledge that many dangers to the vulnerable are not faced by all of those so appointed.
Think of the scandals through the centuries not faced. Those shepherds who did nothing about slavery or its modern equivalent sex slavery, the deliberately unnoticed Pacific victims of the bomb tests, those who not only turn a blind eye to the absolute scandal of the arms trade but condone investment in this area and, let’s admit it, those who for centuries who have been presiding over a building of Church wealth while the refugees are kept out of sight and out of mind in horrendous conditions. The current dangers to the environment, the widening gap between the rich and the poor and the structures set in place to ensure the advantages of the wealthy suggest there is still much for the shepherd to do.
Yes, there have been outstanding good shepherds who have turned to face the dangers. Think of Luther nailing his list of Church sins on a cathedral door, those who bravely took on slavery, and those who today are doing the same. . There are those who continue to look about them to see the dangers. Those who sacrifice a comfortable life in suburbia to work in the refugee camps, those who risk unpopularity or worse to expose corruption and those who speak out as modern day prophets should be identified and celebrated as good shepherds.
Something not often understood by townies, is that sheep are not unintelligent, although they most assuredly are short-sighted and vulnerable. The sheep in danger have the wit to recognise the voice of their shepherd because their shepherd has stayed with them and cared. With Jesus leaving the continuing tasks of the kingdom to those like us, the intriguing question will be to discover if those currently in danger will recognise in us those who deserve the title of good shepherds.