Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd.” Whenever I hear or read this piece of Scripture, pastel paintings of Jesus all in white with sheep gathered around him, perhaps one resting on his shoulders come to mind. These pictures are intended to invoke feelings of peace, serenity, and gentleness. And yet, the cynical person that I am sees images like this and think “yuck”...that is not my Jesus. You see, my Jesus isn’t well groomed with clean hands and neatly trimmed beard. My Jesus has dirty, callused feet from walking a lot. My Jesus has brown robes that might be frayed at the bottom from wear and tear. My Jesus has dark skin, not just because he’s from the Middle East, but because he’s out in the hot sun everyday. My Jesus has shaggy hair, an unkempt beard, and dirt under his fingernails. He’s not the kind of Jesus that we paint in pastel, pastoral settings. And so for me, when I read or hear that Jesus is the good shepherd, I need him to look like a shepherd.
So now that we’ve got that part cleared up, let’s talk about the sheep and the job of shepherding. Sheep are dirty. They aren’t the white fluffy sweetly baying characters of nativity plays and coloring books. Sheep are dirty. Yes, they are fluffy, but its usually a bit matted with dirt and bugs tangled in their fleece. They eat grass, they walk around a lot, and sometimes, they get lost. This past week I watched the new movie “Exodus” and there is this great scene of 3 sheep wandering up a rocky mountain and Moses trying to get them back together. The terrain is dangerous and eventually Moses falls and hits his head. The sheep were not too concerned about poor unconscious Moses and just kept moving along, ending up who knows where.
The shepherd was often one of the lowest on the economic totem pole of the agrarian society. He too would be dirty, he would walk around a lot, and his companion would perhaps be a dog to help him herd the sheep. He wasn’t the owner of the sheep, but someone hired to herd the sheep, and his primary commitment to the sheep was to make sure they got from point A to point B. An average shepherd might not chase down a wandering sheep in order to keep the rest together. An average shepherd might try to fight off wolves, but if his life was at stake, he’d sacrifice the sheep first. He wasn’t necessarily an important person in the community, but a necessary one.
And yet, here we have Jesus saying that he’s the good shepherd. That he will lay down his life for his sheep. That he will keep the flock together. The he knows his sheep and they know him. So what does all this mean?
Well, if we read the text literally in light of the status of shepherds and sheep in that particular time and place, we might think that Jesus is indeed a good shepherd...not an average one. But really we know that Jesus is talking about those who follow (and will follow) him.
If we look at the life of Jesus and this parable of the good shepherd as a metaphor for his ministry, then we understand that Jesus was explaining what the life of discipleship entailed. There were men who claimed to be the Messiah before, during and after the time of Jesus, but he sets himself apart from those because he deeply cares for his followers, he protects and guides them. He is also setting himself apart from the religious authority that had become corrupt and legalistic, being more concerned with how to do religion “right” instead of finding ways to meet people in their deepest needs and bringing them back when they felt lost. This is what it means to be a good shepherd.
And yes, we are part of the sheepfold. We are messy, dirty, sometimes lost and confused, but if we respond to the voice of Jesus, to the one who loves us, then we won’t wander off too far.
This is how we end up back at those pastel, pastoral images of Jesus...so let’s redirect our thought for a moment.
If we are indeed messy, dirty, lost and confused (again, a metaphor that probably rings true for many of us), if our lives are complicated, our schedules so packed that we don’t know which direction we’re going, or our family systems manipulative, harmful, and sad...Jesus is there. If aging has slowed us down, bent our bodies, and made us stumble...Jesus is there. Jesus is there in the muck and the mire, in the wandering and wondering because he loves us. This is why his feet are callused. This is why his robe is frayed along the bottom and he has dirt under his fingernails. He is in it with us, walking with us, never losing sight of us while we sort out our direction.
Yes, Jesus is the good shepherd.
Let us pray:
Jesus, our friend and shepherd: Guide us in this new day, that we may know God’s desire and direction for our lives. Help us in the work we do and the challenges we face, to live as the beloved of God. And may your Spirit strengthen us as we respond to the hungers and hurts of this world. Amen.
(adapted from Daily Prayer for All Seasons)
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.