Today is often called Good Shepherd Sunday due to the famous saying from Jesus that we hear in our Gospel reading “I am the good shepherd.” Often images of sheep are used or talked about, we’re reminded that we’re the sheep and Jesus is our shepherd. Having just been on holiday in the Western Isles mine and Ian’s heads are full of images of sheep – in most places where we camped there were sheep – and highland cattle – as much of the economy of Harris and Lewis is pastoral. For those of us living in towns and cities, however, we don’t have much everyday contact with sheep and in a post-industrial society like ours most people don’t see or handle livestock so the image loses some of its power. In Jesus’ time, however, everyone saw sheep each day – they were a staple part of the economy. Jesus’ hearers, however, would have made other links with his saying “I am the Good Shepherd” and not one we might immediately make today.
The Bible often refers to the leaders of the people as Shepherds. In the Church this might not seem surprising – after all the term pastor is one that is used of ministers – some churches call their clergy pastors, others see that the role of pastor is one that is appropriate to ministers and even the Roman Catholic Church has one of its titles for the pope as Supreme Pastor. That takes us back to Jesus’ saying and images of sheep but the term shepherd, biblically, is about more than that.
The king was a shepherd – raised up by God, at the people’s insistence, to lead and care for the people. The religious leaders were shepherds whose role was to attend to the public worship of God but, by the time of Jesus they also had a leadership role in liaising with the Roman occupying power. Even Herod was a shepherd of the people – though not one the people liked very much seeing him as a collaborator and adulterer. Given this identification of the leaders of the people with shepherds you can see the subversive power of our first reading from the book of Ezekiel where the prophet is told to “prophecy against the shepherds of Israel.” Then the devastating core of the message: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals.
Ezekiel would not have been popular with the elite after giving that message! The chapter in Ezekiel continues with God saying that he, himself, will shepherd Israel – that’s the context for Jesus’ words about being the Good Shepherd. He himself would lead the people.
At the time of Jesus’ words saying that he was the Good Shepherd would have been as odd as saying that there were Samaritans who were good. We might say that is as unlikely as Home Office policy makers being sensitive and compassionate – after all the furore this week with the attempted deportations of people who have been living, working and paying into the State since the early 1970s after having been invited to come here.
Jesus is, subtly, critiquing the leaders of the people who, as in Ezekiel’s day hundreds of years before, and this critique would not have gone unnoticed by the authorities.
In contemporary society we don’t use the image of shepherd to describe the leaders raised over us. There are elements of it in the coronation service but that is, really, a fiction in that the monarch may reign but doesn’t rule. Whilst we may not see our political leaders as shepherds we do expect them to show leadership which is caring, compassionate and works for the common good. We do expect them, to use the Biblical language, to be good shepherds. They have to account for the power they use, the money they spend and the state of society. Do they make positive differences or not. Of course we are governed by far more people than in Jesus day – we have local councillors, MSPs and MPs – each with intersecting levels of responsibilities – want the bins sorted or the pot holes filled get onto the councillor who may explain that that Holyrood hasn’t given them enough money so you get onto the MSP who explains that the grant from Westminster isn’t enough so you get onto the MP who explains that (depending on political view) that we must either live within our means or it’s the other lots fault! Meanwhile the sheep get stuck in potholes.
More seriously we do need to remind our leaders that their job is to care for the people, to seek the best for all of society – much of leadership isn’t contentious or party political. There is a consensus that we should look after each other, that the weakness and most vulnerable need special care, that we don’t want to pay for our health care at the point of delivery, that we need to look after our earth and that we want to live something better for the generations that come after us. What I wonder, would Ezekiel make of our society where people sleep on the streets and even those in work need to use foodbanks.
What would Jesus make, I wonder, about the leadership of the Church. Down in London the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse has been hearing horrific story after story of how the Church has failed to protect its most vulnerable members. The Church of England has a pretty rough two weeks in giving evidence and, when the report is released, I suspect it will be brutal. The Shepherds were devouring the sheep.
So we’re left trying to work out the differences. The Bible gives the worldly shepherds a hard time and things don’t seem much better; yet Jesus tells us he is the Good Shepherd – you can see why that title would have raised an eyebrow! The key, I think, is in the opening verse “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Of course with the Holy Week and Easter stories still ringing in our ears this line has a particular resonance but maybe it’s not a bad criteria to judge leadership.
Of course in the Early Church they worried about this line. Augustine said that it wasn’t necessary for clergy to lay down their lives – so long as the sheep were protected; clergy ever since have been grateful.
However, laying down our lives doesn’t just mean being willing to die – it means living sacrificially. All of us follow the Shepherd who lived sacrificially for us but we also are called to live sacrificially for others. When have we laid aside our own agenda, preferences, choices, or material comfort in order to provide what someone else needed.? When we did this we were laying down our lives for the sheep.
When did we realise that someone else helped us out, and in doing so, sacrificed their own material resources, time, convenience, and choices? That might have felt humbling – they laid down their lives for us.
Imagine what difference would it make if there was more sacrificial living in the world? Imagine what esteem our leaders would be held in if they did that. Imagine what people would think of the church if we were truly seen as laying down our lives for the sheep, of the Church could be held up as a place of life and safety.
We are the church. At times we might feel we want to join in with Ezekiel’s condemnation of the leaders. We might feel that we want to compare and contrast the leaders of our age with Jesus, the Good Shepherd but, we too are shepherds and we need to model the sacrificial living that we dream of in our society if we are to help it become whole.
Will you pray with me?
our tender shepherd,
you know how anxious we are
and how easily we stray.
Let us hear your voice
above the clamour of all others,
that we may learn who truly feeds us
and find our way home to you,
our loving Lord,