Let’s start with true confessions time. I’ve never met a shepherd. Now I’m a bit of a townie, but I’ve met a fair number of farmers in my time. Some of them probably even farmed sheep. And my wife grew up on a farm, so I've heard a bit about looking after sheep. But a real-life shepherd who lived and breathed sheep? Bloke with a crook and a sheepdog? Nope.
I doubt I’m alone, though knowing my luck there are people tutting even now and going “well I know lots of shepherds”. Quite so. But my point is that what was once a commonplace metaphor has progressively become less so, and the characteristics of shepherds has become less well known. But this wasn’t so in Jesus’ time, and before him in the times when the Old Testament was written. Sheep and shepherds were everywhere.
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The second thing is that shepherds were loners, rural folk who spent lots of time alone on the hills, weren’t rich or well-educated, maybe didn’t smell so good, a bit rough around the edges, tended not to be trusted by the townsfolk. Remember the shepherds in Luke’s version of the birth of Jesus, out there on the hills.
The third thing about shepherds is that the Old Testament is full of places where the leaders of Israel are compared to shepherds. Sometimes it’s even the same Hebrew word. And the prophets used this comparison to good effect. The prophet Ezekiel had a fantastic rant against the shepherds of Israel, in words that are very close to what we’ve heard already:
“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.” [34:2b-4]and later Ezekiel carries on:
“For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.” [34:11,14-16]Now Jesus knew his prophets, and so did his listeners. So when he talked about good shepherds, he and his listeners would inevitably have that question of leadership behind his words. Moreover, it’s clear if you look to the end of the previous chapter that he’s speaking to a group of Pharisees who have been questioning him after he healed a blind man. And the word he uses that’s translated ‘good’, which is kalos in Greek, doesn’t just mean morally right, but also noble, attractive, magnificent. It’s the kind of goodness that shines out of someone and draws you to them.
So that’s one kind of leader – one who heals, one who feeds their sheep, who leads them to good pastures, and who is willing to protect them followers to the bitter end, to willingly lay down their life. Contrast that with the other kind of leader, who Jesus refers to as a hired hand, someone who might do a reasonable job to start with, but when trouble comes will run away and leave their sheep, those they’re supposed to care for, at the mercy of the troubles around them.
Now we have all come across leaders like that. Whether it’s politicians, CEOs of large corporations, university vice-chancellors – we see some dreadful leaders in place. They swan in from outside having no experience of the organisation they’ve come to lead, sometimes even the kind of organisation they lead, only knowing money and management, but paid huge sums. And their focus isn’t on protecting the organisation and its people, but on making money or on quick change. And we see slashing cuts to staff, offices closed, unnecessary restructuring, mismanagement. All because they were hired hands rather than good shepherds. We had an example of this kind of leadership recently where I work, and it did huge damage to a fine organisation, from which we’ll hopefully recover.
The church likewise is not immune to this kind of lack of leadership. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Christian radicals such as the early Quakers preached and wrote furious invectives against what they called ‘hireling priests’, referring to this very passage. A radical Anglican theologian of the 18th century by the name of Thomas Woolston, born and raised here in Northampton, wrote a book where he offered to debate with anyone who’d come “whether the hireling-preachers of this age, who are all ministers of the letter, be not worshippers of the apocalyptic beast, and ministers of Anti-Christ?”. Which on the whole is what I think you’d call a loaded question for debate. Most of today’s clergy, and naturally all lay preachers, are not in it for the money – but there have been terrible stories of clerical misbehaviour, including sexual abuse scandals which were covered up, but also many other cases of misuse of power and authority.
And against that kind of poor leadership, Jesus sets out the role of a good shepherd. That takes us back to Psalm 23, which we heard at the start of the service. That psalm is so familiar that many people can recite it off by heart. It’s been set to music so many times, and even was used for the Vicar of Dibley theme tune! It’s read at many funerals. It’s probably the best-loved and most-familiar of all the psalms. And of course as a result, it’s not read as closely as it might be. Three thoughts about the 23rd psalm.
First, it could be seen as a job description for a good shepherd. It shows God leading us on a journey through life, taking us to safe and good places which are full of peace and rest and nurture, guiding us past the dangers of life, protecting us from those who trouble us. What more could a sheep ask for from their shepherd?
Second thing to say about the 23rd psalm. We all have our favourite parts, but mine is in the second verse. It reads “he makes me lie down in green pastures”. The psalmist doesn’t say that God invites us to have a quick lie-down, just for a few minutes, if we’re not too busy. God does not invite, God insists. Now I’m a chronically busy person, I take on more than I should, and I struggle to stop and relax, and I grew up in a Scottish Presbyterian culture which was suspicious of not using your talents to the full and which said there was always something else you could be doing. Others here may be able to relate to that feeling! But the psalm tells us that a good shepherd will make us blooming well stop in those green pastures and by those still waters. This is the word of the Lord, thanks be to God.
Last thing on the 23rd psalm. Many commentators observe that the final verse is a poor translation. Most versions have some variety of “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life”, but the Hebrew word we have as ‘follow’ is more active than that, and means more like pursue. Last Sunday’s lectionary gospel had Jesus appearing to the disciples, pursuing them from beyond death and in the face of their scepticism, because of his love for them. The Easter encounters with the risen Christ are all about Jesus pursuing, of reaching out to the disciples in their despair and hopelessness, when they least expected it, and suddenly transforming their lives like when he simply called Mary by her name outside the tomb, or where he simply broke bread and blessed it in Emmaus. The good shepherd runs after their sheep, chases them and protects them, and rejoices when they are found, as Jesus tells in his parable of the lost sheep.
And the good shepherd will ultimately lay down their life for the sheep. Now we’re in the season of Easter, and we immediately connect this phrase with the cross, with Jesus knowingly dying out of love from his followers, to protect them and restore them to life. But if we look at the Greek again, we find that the word translated as life is not zoe, the usual Greek word for life, but it’s actually psyche, from which we have words such as psychology and psychiatry. It’s more about soul, the internal and fundamental part of life, than it’s about physical life. Jesus is laying down his soul for his followers. He is losing his shalom, his wholeness, his integrity, his peace.
The key prayer of Judaism, then and now, is the Shema, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might”, and that word soul in the Greek version of the Shema is psyche. So Jesus as a good Jew is laying down a fundamental part of his witness to God. He laying down what makes him good, what makes him lovely, what makes him a unique individual, what makes him able to witness to God. When he cried on the cross “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, that wasn’t just the cry of someone who was about to lose their life, but the cry of someone about to lose their soul. And in saying that Jesus is the good shepherd, that is the promise he’s making, that’s the level of sacrifice he’s willing to make.
Note that it’s not just for those of us here in this room. Because John’s version of Jesus is the universal Christ, the Christ as we learnt about him after the resurrection. He’s not just the Messiah for the Jews. He’s not just the saviour for the Christians. He’s the saviour of the whole world. He has other sheep that will listen to his voice, and he lays down his life for them too. They might give him other names, they might not believe the same about him as we do, they might be followers of other faiths, but if they too follow in Jesus’ way of love of God and love of neighbour, if they too participate in his upside-down kingdom, then Jesus is the good shepherd for them too. And Jesus lays down his soul for them too.
And what of us? Are we also commanded to lay down our lives for others? We’re told as much in the first epistle of John that we heard earlier, the verse sometimes describes as the other John 3:16. It reads “we know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another”. And here again it’s that word psyche. Now there are plenty of passages in the gospels about taking up one’s cross, but I don’t think this necessarily refers to physical death. What I think it refers to comes in the following verses of 1st John: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” and then “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action”. This is not about death, but about change. It’s about laying down the parts of our souls which stop us from helping those in need. It’s about laying down the parts of our souls which stop us from speaking truth to power, that stop us from taking action for the good. It’s about laying down our fears and our egos and our prejudices. And just as the good shepherd takes up his soul again, we too are commanded to take up our souls again, cleansed of these things, and filled with God’s love, ready to love God and to love our neighbour as ourselves, ready to tend to those in need, whether it is physical, spiritual or emotional.
We are not called to be as shepherds, but we are called to live in the way of love. And as we do so, we shall be led like sheep through green pastures and pursued by goodness and mercy, and led to the peace and wholeness that Jesus offers us, to life lived in abundance, in the name of him who lost everything so that we might gain everything. Amen.