The Good Shepherd
"I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them."
April 23, 2021, Words By: Kris Rocke, Image By: unknown
This week is Good Shepherd Sunday. Thank goodness, because I am feeling like a sheep in need of a good shepherd, and so are the communities we serve.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus refers to himself as the Good Shepherd who, “lays down his life for the sheep.” I confess that my idea of a good shepherd is one who wipes out the whole pack of harassing wolves. I want Rambo, not a shepherd who suffers and dies.
But Jesus isn’t Rambo. He’s clear—what makes the shepherd “good” is his willingness to “lay down his life” for the sheep. He uses that phrase five times in this week’s text. It’s the core of the Gospel revelation.
In other words, the Good Shepherd becomes the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29), which is exactly how John the Baptist introduces Jesus at the outset of his ministry. Seeing the shepherd as the “Lamb of God” is the key to Gospel insight.
It helps to know that in the book of John, sheep are not simply cute animals in beautiful pastures. In the context of Jerusalem and the Temple, sheep are victims that feed the sacrificial system. In fact, the “Sheep Gate” in the temple was the place where the sheep passed through on the way to being sacrificed.
Anthropologists have uncovered an unsettling fact: animal husbandry (i.e. domesticating animals such as sheep that began around 10,000 years ago) was the invention of sacrificial systems that needed a constant supply of victims.
Sacrificial systems always need more victims.
So, when Jesus is speaking of sheep, he is speaking of real victims being prepared for real slaughter by an insatiable, carnivorous system that feels like a whole pack of hungry wolves, especially if you happen to be a sheep. Living with that fear has a way of not only terrorizing your soul, it also makes you paranoid that everyone you meet is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Sacrificial systems menace our soul and sow rivalry and mistrust between all people.
Even worse, imagine that you’re a sheep and you’ve been told all your life that the “Great Shepherd in the Sky” is behind the very system that is killing you. Think of the bind this creates for the sheep. You are supposed to love and trust the “Great Shepherd in the Sky” who invented the very system that is slaughtering you.
Lending divine credence to sacrificial systems sows rivalry and mistrust between people and God.
Sadly, this is exactly the bind that many of us find ourselves in.
So how does the Good Shepherd turned Lamb of God set us free?
It’s true, the Good Shepherd lays down his life, but not in some act of romantic heroism. Nor does he lay it down to appease the Great Shepherd in the Sky. He lays it down “in order to take it up again.”
Without resurrection the entire Gospel revelation falls apart. It becomes nothing but moralistic do-gooder-ism that is a heavy burden.
Without resurrection, the lamb who was slain is just another dead lamb—one more nameless victim. Nothing changes.
But the resurrection is real! The Lamb of God is alive and he comes to us in the resurrection, not with vengeance, but as what James Alison calls, “The Forgiving Victim.” He comes back as the victim who forgives.
Can we see?
It’s the Lamb of God who reveals the goodness of God. It’s the Lamb of God who reconciles the sheep and the wolf and dismantles (and heals) the system that keeps us locked in rivalry. This is why we declare, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”
Given that lambs are infant sheep, that sheep are afraid and foolish, and lack the means of self-protection, having neither rage nor claws, venom nor cunning, what then is this ‘Lamb of God’? (Levertov: Agnus Dei)
Dwelling Among Us
Read all of Levertov’s Poem Agnus Dei. Spend some time comparing her imagery to the ways you imagine God. Is her depiction comforting or distressing for you? Why?