The Good Shepherd

Wednesday, February 15, 2012 — Week of 6 Epiphany, Year Two

Thomas Bray, Priest and Missionary, 1730

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 949)

Psalms 101, 109:1-4(5-19)20-30 (morning) 119:121-144 (evening)

Genesis 31:25-50

1 John 2:12-17

John 10:1-18

The image of Jesus the Good Shepherd is among the most beloved and pastoral we have. We adorn our church nurseries and children’s areas with pictures of Jesus caring for the lambs. At times when I have felt particularly vulnerable, I have turned to the shepherd image of Jesus, the strong protector, and felt myself embraced, guarded and sheltered.

But there is another traditional way that we might read and hear today’s familiar passage about the Good Shepherd (from John 10). In the scripture and in other ancient literature, shepherd imagery was often used for human rulers, for kings and emperors.

In Ezekiel 34 the prophet famously prophesies against the shepherds of Israel — leaders who have been feeding themselves and becoming fat and rich while the sheep have suffered. “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.” (Ezekiel 34:3f) Ezekiel insists that these leaders, these bad shepherds, must be replaced. They will be scattered, exiled. Jeremiah also prophecies against the rulers, speaking of the shepherds who are stupid and who do not inquire of God. (10:21)

We also have Biblical images of good leaders who care for their flock. David is the shepherd who moves from caring for the flock to becoming the good king and leader. And Micah (5:2) looks forward to a Messianic ruler from Bethlehem-Ephratah who will be called “shepherd of my people.”

When Jesus names himself the “Good Shepherd,” it might have been heard as a very political statement. When Jesus speaks of himself as the Good Shepherd, he may have in mind a challenge similar to the metaphor of the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is how the world would be if God were ruler, and not Caesar or Herod. The Good Shepherd is the caring and benevolent leader, who protects the sheep, guards the vulnerable and heals the hurt. Jesus the Good Shepherd is an image a godly ruler, a challenge and contrast to Caesar or Herod. The image of the Good Shepherd is also a challenge to our contemporary leaders — our elected representatives and other governmental officials. Ezekiel’s accusation against the shepherds of Israel could also apply to many of our own leaders today.

Jesus called on his disciples to exercise their leadership as servants, and he gave them the example of himself, as leader, washing their feet as a slave might.

Today is the commemoration of Thomas Bray, an English country parson who became active in many public ways. He had oversight for the Church’s work in the colony of Maryland, where he promoted education and literacy and expressed compassionate concern for Native Americans and Blacks, particularly slaves. He made prison reform a major issue, influencing public opinion on behalf of the misery of inmates. He organized Sunday “Beef and Beer” dinners in the prisons. Bray is credited with inspiring General Oglethorpe to found a humanitarian colony of Georgia to give honest debtors another chance.

One of my colleagues, Roger Joslin, vicar of All Saints’, Bentonville, has recently been doing some Good Shepherd work in Benton County, Arkansas, in the spirit of Thomas Bray. The Benton County sheriff is rather proud of the fact that the jail serves no hot food to their prison population. Roger has challenged that practice. He’s pointed out that many in jail are only accused, officially innocent until proven guilty. And even the guilty deserve humane treatment and nutritious food.

The scriptures invite us to hold our leaders accountable as servants, as good shepherds, benevolent leaders who strengthen the weak, heal the sick, bind up the injured, bring back the strayed, seek the lost or ghettoed — good shepherds who care for the flock rather than becoming fat and powerful themselves, attending to the interests of the fat and powerful.

When Jesus says “I am the Good Shepherd” he throws down a gauntlet to every ruler or authority. And he gives us all an example of how we exercise whatever power or authority we may have in our own home or work or among our friends.

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