By Debie Thomas
For Sunday April 26, 2015
Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)
1 John 3:16-24
I'll confess at the start: when I Googled the lectionary readings for this week, and realized I'd have to write an essay about The Good Shepherd, I cringed, turned off my computer, and went for a walk.
If you grew up in the Church, you might carry shepherd baggage, too. Was Psalm 23 the first Psalm you memorized as a child? Did you spend umpteen hours in Sunday School, making sheep out of toothpicks, cotton balls, and Elmer's glue? Did your kids' choir sing "I Just Wanna Be a Sheep, Baaa Baaa," all the way through middle school? Did you spend any time in your church narthex after morning service, staring hungrily at a painting of Jesus wearing flowing robes, an adorable lamb perched on his shoulders, and wonder why God never sweeps down from the heavens to cuddle you?
I find the Good Shepherd passages in John's Gospel difficult for two reasons. On the one hand, the metaphor is overfamiliar, its beauty buried under so much saccharine piety and Hallmark card sentiment, I can't approach it without rolling my eyes. On the other hand, I'm overly aware of the fact that I have no real-life idea what Jesus was actually talking about when he described himself in terms of shepherds, sheep, hirelings, and wolves.
Jesus was an effective teacher because he used metaphors his audience could relate to. When he spoke of sheepfolds, vineyards, mustard seeds, and fishing nets, he was not spouting exotica; he was wielding the stuff of first-century peasant life. Me, though? I've never herded sheep, met a shepherd, or fought a wolf in my life.
I did grow up visiting my grandparents' farms in India, but I never saw my grandfather drape baby animals over his clean, robed shoulders. Most of the time, the animals on his farm stank. Often, at the end of a long day in their midst, so did he. How the Church has gone from the mud-stained hardships of animal husbandry to a manicured Jesus cuddling a lily-white lamb, is beyond me.
So I come to this week's readings — jaded on the one hand, ignorant on the other — and struggle. Struggle almost to the point of quitting. After days of reading and re-reading, I have nothing conclusive or authoritative to say. No lessons, no applications, no morals. All I have are wonderings — things I wonder about as I try to reengage the Good Shepherd metaphor as best I can.
I'm borrowing here from Godly Play, the Sunday School curriculum many churches — including my own — use to introduce young children to the Bible. In Godly Play, after children hear a Bible story, they're invited to "wonder" about it. To use their imaginations, and respond freely to whatever the story evokes for them. The emphasis in Godly Play pedagogy is not on finding "right" answers, but on living creatively and faithfully with honest questions.
Here, then, are my wonderings about Jesus, the Good Shepherd:
I wonder why Jesus used this metaphor in the time and place he did. According to John's Gospel, Jesus had just healed a blind man on the Sabbath, and the religious elite were furious. Moreover, it was the Feast of the Dedication (the holiday we know today as Hanukkah, when Jewish people celebrate the rededication of the Temple after the victory of Judas Maccabeus in 2nd century BCE), and Jesus was walking in the Temple itself — the very place the Jews were venerating as symbolic of their unique, covenantal relationship with God.
Why call himself a shepherd in that setting? The image of a shepherd tending his flock would have been deeply ingrained in the religious imaginations of the Israelites. They knew Moses tended his father-in-law's flock before God commissioned him to lead the Israelites out of slavery. They knew King David tended sheep before ascending to the throne. They knew Yahweh as the ultimate Shepherd over his flock, Israel.
So I wonder if Jesus was saying something provocative rather than self-effacing when he called himself the Good Shepherd. I tend to think "meek and mild" when I imagine Jesus cradling lambs, but why would meek and mild incense his listeners, who attempted to arrest him for using this particular metaphor? Was Jesus in fact equating himself with God, the Shepherd King?
On the very occasion when the Jews were celebrating the supremacy of the Temple, and its centrality in their religious lives, was Jesus suggesting that God's presence actually dwells in the wilderness, out among the wolves, the thieves, the hirelings, and the smelly sheep? (In other words, among the outcasts, the irreligious, the ritually unclean, and the politically incorrect?) If so, what might this provocative teaching mean for me today? Where is my Temple? Where is my wilderness? Where are the places I assume God will never dwell?
I wonder what it would take to believe these words of Jesus: "I know my own and my own know me." Really? Is the life of faith really so straightforward, so certain? I'm remembering times in my life when I have not known for sure. When I've feared that I am not Jesus' own. If Jesus is so certain of my identity, so sure that I'm capable of discerning his voice, I wonder what keeps me hanging in doubt and fear.
I think of the barriers that lie between Jesus' assurance and my faith. Barriers of doctrine. Do I believe all the right things about God? Do I have my creeds in order? Is there some nuance of theology I'm missing? Barriers of guilt. How can I really be forgiven? Surely there must be a catch somewhere. Barriers of pain. I've cried out for my Shepherd's voice many times, and experienced only silence. Or if Jesus has spoken, I have not recognized him.
If the metaphor isn't perfect, if it doesn't cover all circumstances for all time, if it leaves much to mystery, can I still find the courage to lean into it?
I wonder who the hirelings are: In the story Jesus tells, the hired hands are pseudo- shepherds who work for personal gain, not patient love. They have no genuine stake in the well-being of the sheep; they flee at the first sign of danger. So I wonder: who pretends to love me for their own gain? Whose voices do I heed to my detriment? What siren songs call to me, making seductive promises I shouldn't trust? Money? Success? Physical attractiveness? Prestige? Politics? Racial, cultural, or national identity?
These are the biggies, easiest to name. What else? What else beckons?
I wonder what shepherding is really like: I've heard sheep are dumb and skittish. I've heard they wander, get hurt easily, graze without ceasing, and bicker for no decent reason. I've heard they're stubborn, but lost without a leader. So I wonder what Jesus has to put up with, shepherding me.
I imagine he fights loneliness and boredom, as I ignore him in favor of greener pastures. I imagine he watches the dumb, skittish, stubborn things I do, hoping I won't injure myself again. I imagine he rescues me from death all the time, while I — so often oblivious — resist his efforts tooth and nail.
I wonder why the Church fears this metaphor: The more I read John 10 and Psalm 23, the scarier they sound. I'm astonished now at how much I have not seen in these passages. The Psalmist's banqueting table is surrounded by his enemies. Still waters and green pastures lead to valleys of death.
As the Good Shepherd, Jesus lives at the edges of polite society, out in the wild, untamed places of the world. His life remains perpetually in danger. He faces again and again the mockery of the hirelings, who consider his self-sacrificial vocation absurd. Because he's in it for the long haul with his flock, he not only frolics with lambs, but wrestles with wolves. He not only tends the wounds of his beloved rams and ewes; he buries them when their time comes.
Okay, maybe I don't wonder why the Church has turned this Shepherd into a greeting card. It's so hard to face who he really is. To contemplate what he in fact requires of us. "We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us — and we ought to lay down our lives for one another," the Epistle of 1 John reminds us.
How will we incarnate the love of this magnificent shepherd? How will we spread his goodness in the wildest of wild places? In the valleys, amongst the wolves, within the flock he has purchased with his life? I wonder.
Image credits: (1) Wikipedia.org; (2) Wikipedia.org; and (3) Wikipedia.org.