The Good Shepherd: A Radical Reading

Icon of Christ the Good Shepherd

John 10

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

22 April 2018

Today is Good Shepherd Sunday; this morning, and again tonight, we have heard of Jesus, the Good Shepherd.

And you might think: well, how very sentimental.

Maybe you see Jesus in your mind’s eye as a kindly man with a shepherd’s crook. Perhaps your mind conjures up vaguely English, rural scenery. Suddenly, I’m sure, you can hear the Vicar of Dibley soundtrack: the Lord is my Shepherd, and I shall not want. … Ah yes, Dawn French.

And just maybe, if you are steeped in the folklore of the Anglican Church, you will think of George Herbert’s portrait of the country parson, learned and caring and serious—all of them representatives of Christ the Good Shepherd.
But I’m not sure the writer of John’s gospel was thinking about any of this. All of this is too, too sentimental: for when, in this text, Jesus says “I am the good shepherd,” he says something radical, something political.

I am not like the proud and mercenary rulers of the world, he says: no, I am a humble king, the Shepherd King who leads out his people Israel.

The author of John’s gospel did not simply dream up this imagery. It is, it seems to me, based in the ancient vision of Ezekiel which we have heard tonight. That prophet, six centuries before Christ, had something scathing to say about self-interested rulers who presiding over the disintegration of society:

Without a shepherd, my flock was scattered; and when it was scattered, it became food for the wild animals. My flock strayed on all the mountains and on every high hill throughout all the earth. …
Shouldn’t [you] shepherds tend the flock? You drink the milk, you wear the wool, and you slaughter the fat animals, but you don’t tend the flock. You don’t strengthen the weak, heal the sick, bind up the injured, bring back the strays, or seek out the lost; but instead you use force to rule them with injustice.

Perhaps it was a time not unlike our own, but surely like every time. In this situation, the cry of the faithful goes up: there is another power on the earth, another shepherd! Even now he is calling out his own—the humble of the earth.

So says the Lord: I myself will search for my flock and seek them out. … I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered during the time of clouds and thick darkness. I will gather and lead them out from the countries and peoples, and I will bring them to their own fertile land. … I will seek out the lost, bring back the strays, bind up the wounded, and strengthen the weak. But the fat and the strong I will destroy, because I will tend my sheep with justice.

A radical text.

So when Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd,” is this such sentimental, misty-eyed stuff after all? No, it is I believe a challenge to the powers of the earth, the unjust powers which would scatter us all to the hills. I will tend my sheep with justice, says the Lord.

Here we have two visions of society—a society of care and mutual concern, and a society of self-interest.

And this division, perhaps it is not often said, is basic to all Western thought. St Augustine made it basic to his own thought in the fourth century; it emerged again at the reformation. There are two cities, he said: two kingdoms or, we might say, two sheepfolds. These two are always coexisting: their boundaries are unclear, but their reality is clear enough. One is the city of God, characterised by humility and social-concern; the other is the earthly city, characterised by pride and self-interest.

And, I should say, this earthly city is headed for destruction; like Rome itself in Augustine’s day, everything seems to be falling apart, even in spite of a most efficient bureaucracy. The sheep are scattering to the hills.

St Augustine even imitates the voice of a worldly Roman citizen—

“This is our concern, that everyone increase their wealth to supply their daily whims, and that the powerful may subject the weak for their own purposes… Let the law recognise the injury done to another’s property, rather than to another’s [humanity]. … Let there be a plentiful supply of public prostitutes for everyone who wishes to use them, but especially those who are too poor to keep one for their private use. Let there be built houses of the largest and most ornate kind: let there be the most sumptuous banquets… Let there be everywhere heard the rustling of dancers…; let a succession of the most cruel and voluptuous pleasures maintain a constant excitement. If such happiness is distasteful to any, let him be branded a public enemy…” (City of God, Bk 1)

Maybe you find that disturbing; but probably it is all too close to home. The earthly city survives still, I am sure you’ll agree. It goes on, this city of pride and self-interest and disintegration.

Think of how the profit motive has damaged the social bond: have we all become merely hired-hands, who no longer really care? What happened to self-sacrifice, service, and neighbourliness?

Where are our good shepherds?

I am the Good Shepherd, says the Lord.

Even now, we, like sheep, hear his voice: we know it well.

Jesus calls us beyond pride and self-interest. He calls us into humility—into care and social-concern.  Seek out the lost, bring back the strays, bind up the wounded, and strengthen the weak.

Jesus would say to us as he said to Peter, “feed my sheep.” This is Jesus’ call to us. This is the pastoral mission of the Church; it is all our mission.

Let us all join in that work, knowing that, in God’s time and by God’s power, there we will be one flock, under one shepherd.