Alleluia! Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Ever since my brief (less-than-8-hour) experience with Norwegian sheep three years ago, I've been very uncomfortable with the images in today's Gospel. After that experience, the notion of comparing God's people to sheep has become, on several levels, revolting. The Hattfjeldahl flock I dealt with had spent from mid-October to mid-June (or as Norwegians call that "winter") locked up in a barn. 100 of them entered the barn in October. 123 came out of the barn in June. When the barn doors were open to let them out after 8 months imprisonment, "still waters," namely "ice" still covered HattfjeIdahls' lake and the anticipated "green pasture" was still covered in 12 inches of snow. It did not surprise me that the animals were reluctant to come out. There is no adequate way to describe the aroma emanating from the barn once its doors were open. And, because they are monumentally stupid, it is also not possible for me to describe the effort it took the three teenage Norwegian shepherds and this aging New York pastor to get the flock out in the morning and back into the barn later that night. Suffice it to say that there is no comparing them to any group of human beings I know and this was far from the pristine
and bucolic experience we've been told to expect on the basis of the Gospel for today. Real "good" shepherds are tough, not gentle. Real sheep are incredibly obtuse and filthy. Real lambs are cute but do not have the brains they were born with. The biblical writers knew that. I learned that; More to the point, when those writers in general and the writer of John's Gospel in particular use the image of "sheep" and "shepherd," to describe the relationship between God and God's people, they were not thinking pristine or bucolic either. They were thinking justice, no matter when or where their hearers lived. Consider a few examples.
"'Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!' says the Lord through the prophet Jeremiah, 6 centuries before Jesus. Or this, from the prophet Ezekiel, fifty years later: "The shepherds have fed themselves; they have not fed my sheep; thereforeâ€¦thus says the Lord God, I am against these shepherds; I will demand my sheep from their hand, I will put a stop to their feeding of the sheep; no longer shall the shepherds feed themselvesâ€¦" (Ezekiel 34:8-10). Amd this, from the prophet Zechariah, another 50 years later: "My anger is hot against the shepherds and I will punish them." (Zechariah 10:3). These prophets are not railing
about furry four-legged animals or against itinerant, illiterate peasants; they are speaking about leaders â€” political leaders â€” kings, judges, employers and merchants â€” and religious leaders who enrich themselves by exploiting those for whom they are entrusted to care. Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Zechariah are far from alone. The list of Judean prophets who use this image of sheep and shepherd in reference to speak of justice in this way is very, very long.
When, in John's Gospel, Jesus uses this imagery and describes himself as the "good" shepherd; he is speaking justice too. Far from evoking comfy rural-ness, far from reducing Jesus to meek- and mildness, Jesus' "shepherd-ness" is about God working justice for all and necessitates that Jesus "give his life for the sheep." Similarly, when in John's Gospel, Jesus describes us â€” God's people â€” as sheep; he is speaking justice too.
Far from demeaning us as insufferably directionless and stupid animals, when Jesus calls us "sheep" and invites us to call him "shepherd," he is inviting us to be wise and courageous â€” to "fear no evil" â€” especially from the alternative shepherds who exploit, shame; marginalize, and control others by threatening
death rather than offering life. To call Jesus our Good Shepherd â€” to trust Jesus to be our Good Shepherd â€” is not about mindless surrender, but life lived courageously enlivened by hope; not constricted by fear.
There is so much fear among us today! And there are so many fear-mongers constantly exploiting us, seldom for our benefit and mostly for their own. Fear not only sells; it always makes a profit. Fear always drives us to spend more of ourselves, our time, and our possessions to appease or buy or defend ourselves from others. Fear turns us inward. Fear drives us to live as we are on our own.
"I am the Good Shepherd," says Jesus. "I know you've been hurt by others! I know you've been exploited! I know you've been used. I know you are afraid and think you are alone!"
"I am the Good Shepherd," says Jesus. "Trust me for your safety. Trust me for your future. Trust me because, unlike those others whom you have experienced as diminishing your life; I give you mine. I lay down my life for you. Here, take and eat and know!" Here. "Take and eat and see that you are never alone; that 'I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold;' who are
not threats, but companions on our way."
The all-pervasiveness of fear â€” fear of others, fear of change; fear of the future; fear of death â€” exhausts me. I am wearied by those who behave as if we are nothing but sheep to be exploited, sheep being led unprotected to the slaughter. I am tired of those who want us always to be afraid.
"I am the good shepherd," says Jesus. "I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I know my own and my own know me. I lay down my life for the sheep."
Alleluia! Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia
And we shall have no want.
Amandus J. Derr
Saint Peter's Church
in the City of New York