Unlike most Christians, I find the standard image of Jesus as Good Shepherd annoying at the least, and absurd at the best.
Years ago, I served an historic parish on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, St. Paul’s Chestertown, whose building has been used for worship continuously from 1713 to the present, longer than any other building in Maryland. Almost every accoutrement in the church is “new.” The slave balcony is a late addition, as are what appear to be ancient box-pews. A wrought iron electric chandelier provides dim light augmenting the natural light offered by large colonial windows, and hymns are accompanied by an electric organ. Pipes from an 1800s pump organ still adorn the choir area.
Behind the electric organ is a large Tiffany-style window from the twenties depicting a blond Jesus carrying passive lamb around his shoulders.
To be sure, I have often needed Jesus to pick me up and carry me along, but I’ve been anything but passive in the process. Many times have I lost my way and needed to be found. The fact that I have required shepherding has nothing to do with my reasons for not liking the image.
I do not like the image because I am seldom, if ever, as docile as the lamb that the blond Jesus is carrying. Perhaps you are docile and cartable, but I am more like the lambs I’ve observed in real life.
My good friends Brian and Kathleen are Idaho sheep ranchers. They started life as city-folk, but have been ranchers long enough now to be considered fair converts. One year, they invited me to the annual branding of their lambs. Lest you grow concerned, sheep are branded with spray paint, not scalding pokers.
To brand the lambs – and to give them their vaccines and medicine – the ranch hands will pick a lamb up using both arms. The little guy will fight tooth and nail, wiggle and squirm, and there is nothing at all passive about him. All of the sheep in the pen will jump up and over each other to avoid the helping-hands of the ranchers.
Maybe you are thinking to yourself, Well, now, isn’t that why Jesus is the Good Shepherd? The sheep know his voice. Are like dogs running to their owner.
Maybe. But sometimes I feel more like the proverbial black sheep running away from my owner, than to him. Carried passively by a blond Jesus? (Need I really point out that Jesus was not blond and thin, but probably dark and burly?)
Yes, a big burly Jesus might be able to carry a sheep, but only after wrestling the sheep. Hmmm – reminds me a little of God wrestling Jacob.
Yep, wrestling has marked my faith far more than passive acquiescence.
So no, I am not fond of Good Shepherd Sunday, at least not as so often presented.