A reflection on the readings for Easter 4-b: Acts 4:5-12; Psalm 23; John 10:11-18 by the Rev. Jacqueline Schmitt
Believe it or not, there was a time when the term “Good Shepherd” would have been an oxymoron – it would have been impossible to conceive a shepherd as “good.” It would have been like saying, a “good politician.” To the ears of those who heard Jesus say these words, this term would have been an odd one indeed. Rabbis would have included shepherds as one of those occupations to be avoided. Shepherds were considered dishonest. They were accused of leading their flock to graze in other people’s pastures, or of stealing lambs from other people’s flocks. In fact an ancient Jewish commentary on Psalm 23 says, “There is no more disreputable occupation that that of a shepherd.”[i]
But there were Christians who “got” what Jesus was getting at. Soon after Jesus’ death, pictures of the Good Shepherd were appearing in places important to early Christians. They “got it” because they needed it. The Roman Empire for the early Christians was a pretty dangerous place. To understand God as a protector like a strong and wily shepherd was a good thing. No one else was protecting them from being snatched, persecuted, taxed out of existence. They could call on Jesus the Good Shepherd to rescue them from a hostile world. This shepherd was dependable, would lead them to safe places, would feed them in abundant pastures.
By the 4th century, things began to change for Christians. The Emperor Constantine turned the hostile pagan empire into a Christian one. Among the many changes were how Christians viewed the Good Shepherd. No longer needed to symbolize God’s protection for the faithful, the Shepherd now represented how Jesus would watch over them as they traveled into another dangerous place: death. Depictions of the Good Shepherd began to appear on mausoleums and in cemeteries. The Good Shepherd would be your guide after death. Around this time, when ordinary life was a little more secure, the 23rd Psalm became a common reading at funerals.
We can understand the Shepherd as our guardian and guide, but what does it mean to say that the Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep? That the shepherd dies for us? That is one classical strain of Christian theology: that we are so bad that only the death of God’s Son can redeem us. The ultimately Good Shepherd lays down his life – dies for – the ultimately sinful humanity. That is a debt we can never repay.
But what if we shifted the focus a little bit, from the Shepherd giving up his life, to the Shepherd giving up his living. If the Shepherd is our guide, our model for being good, what would it mean to follow this Shepherd, to hear his voice?
The first part of living that the Shepherd gives up is the fear of death: those who try to threaten him with execution and death have no power over one who has risen from the dead. Our Good Shepherd teaches us that we do not need to fear death, either.
Nor do we have to fear the culture and obsessions that go along with death. We can choose hope over despair, reconciliation over estrangement, healing over brokenness. We can give up some of our stuff that we accumulate to ward off the powers of death – as the Good Shepherd reminds us, not only can we not take it with us, but where we are going there will be plenty to go around.
Most importantly, we learn from the Good Shepherd that we are in this world not to be served but to serve. Jesus contrasts the Good Shepherd with the hireling, who at no point is willing to give up anything. Rather than serve, the hireling clings desperately to what life he has, all the while not knowing that, in the words of St. Francis many centuries later, “it is in giving that we receive, in dying that we are born to eternal life.”
Good Shepherds are not so hard to find. They are the ones who lay down their lives every day, who give of themselves and find abundance and joy. Their sacrifices bring food to the hungry and hope to the despairing. They bring furniture to a burned-out family or they stand up for an innocent victim in court. Think a minute; you know who I am talking about.
The Good Shepherd calls them, and they hear his voice.
Listen: The Good Shepherd is calling us, too.