The Bible Wants a Shepherd to Lead us– Why Don’t We?
A sermon based on John 10:11-18
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on April 22, 2018
by Rev. Scott Elliott
We heard two of today’s Lectionary texts, Psalm 23 and John 10. Both of them, you probably noticed, have shepherd and sheep themes. The Fourth Day of Eastertide has a long tradition in Christianity of being Good Shepherd Sunday because these two texts are lifted up.
Although I grew up in a California Bay Area suburb with miles and miles of sidewalks and streets with nary a sheep in sight, I sort of have a connection to shepherds. In families like mine there is often a member who takes on the role of clown. It may surprise you to learn that I had that role. At that time in our far from-a-farm neighborhood in San Jose most parents expected their children to grow up to have citified-type jobs, occupations requiring some sort of office work or building trade or consumer related skill.
When I moved into adolescence my mother would sometimes ask in all seriousness what occupation I hoped to have when I was an adult. I always answered “Mom, I want to be a shepherd.” Having never been on, or to, a farm she knew I had to be joking and she’d laugh. But every once in awhile I think she wondered if it might be true.
Although I think being a shepherd would be a cool job, at the time I was kidding. But ironically it’s come true– at least in the sense that ministers are often referred to as shepherds. Because here I am not in a PASTURE with sheep, but a PASTOR with sheep. And actually our faith tradition includes the idea of the priesthood of all believers and so we have church members who we also refer to “Shepherds,” each assigned a number of members to watch out over and provide presence and prayers and pass on to me known concerns.
Okay it is time for some more sheep puns. WOOL EWE had to know I’d put in a few otherwise you might think my sense of humor was on the LAM. I know some farmers in the area raise sheep many of whom have MUTTON to gain by raising them, and others who seem to do so for the SHEAR pleasure of the YARNS THEY SPIN . . . Thus endeth my BAAAD puns.
I assume most of us here are somewhat citified or otherwise not too very familiar with sheep, let alone the ancient world’s settings for sheep and shepherds. So let me put into context our Bible verses references to the Lord and Christ being a Shepherd because it may change our understanding of today’s verses and Biblical ideas of leadership.
Let’s start with sheep. We know them as fluffy beings that bleat at the fair and give us wool and let us count them in our minds to get to sleep. But sheep have one of the longest histories of being domesticated and herded by humans not just for their fleece, but for meat and milk too. Sheep have a reputation for being a dumb animal and they may seem that way, but studies show they are actually among the smartest of domesticated livestock. They can be taught to follow commands including coming when called by their pet name– which is why the text mentions the good shepherd naming them.
They each have their own little quirks and personalities which also adds to shepherds telling them a part. Although each is unique, as a group sheep like to follow a leader, you can push cows but you pretty much have to lead sheep. And they do tend to graze in flocks and they like taller plants, but will munch them to the ground. This grazing-to-the-ground habit has historically created disputes with other herdsmen because the sheep leave so little for the next herdsman with cattle or horses or goats or more sheep.
And it is true as Psalm 23 indicates, that green pastures are generally good for them and preferred when possible. Sheep have such a great sense of smell they can easily sort out poisonous from edible food. Sheep also prefer calm still water to drink so they can hear and concentrate on predator threats.
As vegetarians sheep are not hunters, but they are hunted. Which makes them skittish and very alert. They are particularly skittish about the presence of the unfamiliar, especially new people. 1 This is why the text from John refers to the sheep knowing the shepherd. Sheep like their familiar guardian and care-giver’s presence. As the Feasting on the Word Commentary puts it “Sheep seem to consider their shepherds part of the family, and the relationship that grows up between then is quite exclusive.” 2
And it works in reverse too, which is a big part of the relevance of the image of a shepherd for God and Jesus. Good shepherds are particular about their flocks, they know and care for each sheep. In other words all of their charges are provided all they need to survive. Good shepherds insure that.
Here’s how the Feasting on the Word commentary describes what shepherd’s do: “A Shepherd’s task is to feed the sheep adequately, care for their aliments, keep them gathered together and put their well being before his own.” 3.
We tend to have this idea that being a shepherd was idyllic, you know leaning on a large hooked stick while hanging around green grassy hills by the still waters of a lake. However, not only was there all the work to do, but the Feasting on the Word Commentary also points out that
The life of a shepherd was anything but picturesque. It was dangerous, risky and menial. Shepherds were rough around the edges, spending time in the fields rather than in polite society. For Jesus to say “I am the good shepherd,” would have been an affront to the religious elite and educated. The claim had an edge to it. 4.
Shepherds, you see, were not even close to being thought of as model citizens by the culturally elite.
The text from John calls Jesus a “good” shepherd but the word in Greek is kalos and it includes the meaning “model.” Which is one reason the elite would be annoyed by people claiming God and Jesus are like shepherds. See as a human leader of human beings Jesus is not just a good shepherd but a model shepherd. Model in both the sense of best type of shepherd and in the sense of modeling for others how to be.
My seminary professor Clint McCann, one the world’s leading experts on the Psalms claims that Psalm 23 is a subversive text. 5 It’s subversive because unlike most political leaders throughout history who do not make sure the necessities for well being of their charges are provided, model Shepherds do. Throughout history kings and other national leaders do not act like caring shepherds, they act toward their charges like the stranger to the sheep that Jesus refers to do. Kings and other heads of state in history have way more often than not tended to be akin to hired hands. They are in the leading-people business for pay, pay of riches and power. Those who lead primarily for material gain are not to be trusted. Why, well as Jesus put it
“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. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.”
I am fascinated that both Psalm 23 and the John 10 Lectionary text suggest good shepherds also tends to other flocks! In Psalm 23 verse 5 notes that God, as good shepherd provides for the sheep God gathers and it includes enemies. “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.” Jesus is even more explicit in John. He says he tends to others. “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.” The good Shepherd does not just tend to the well being of a flock of sheep, but neighbor sheep, even enemy sheep. This meshes well with the Old Testament commandments to love neighbor and treat the stranger as a citizen, and of course it matches up nicely to Jesus’ commands that we are to love our neighbors and enemies.
It does not take much to understand how role model leaders as good shepherds is subversive. To lead is to care. To care is to provide. We can even hear the model suggest good leaders – especially heads of state– be like God and Jesus and tend to the welfare of everyone in their charge. The text suggests that everyone within their reach is in their charge. It suggests model leaders are not only responsible for their own well being, and their flock’s well being but every flock and every sheep’s well being! In other words, the role model good shepherd prepares the table for all, invites everyone and honors all with not just a place at the table and food, but treatment as being so special each get Sacred anointings.
We may disagree and not like it but, good shepherds in both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures model how to properly take care of people. In the Bible God and Jesus model how leaders are supposed to lead whether they lead a nation, state, city, social group, church, committee or family.
Now, most people want God to be caring and compassionate. We want a good shepherd God. We like Jesus because he was caring and compassionate too, We want a good shepherd Jesus. Of course when it comes to family we want parents to be full of caring and compassion for family members. We want to have, and to be, good shepherds parents. But the Biblical model good shepherd is not the typical outside-of-the-family leader we look for, or expect, or vote for . . . or maybe even want. Yet if the Bible is our guide for good leadership, humankind has sold itself short on what we expect from leadership at all levels.
God and the Bible suggest the good shepherd is what we need, but we do not expect it, let alone demand it. And I mean from both sides of the aisle, and in between. Leaders of most nations seem to spend more time bickering in power struggles than being anything close to the Biblical role model of Good Shepherds.
I actually understand the arguments that are rolling around in our heads, about leaders who govern with everyone’s welfare at heart, taking on the Shepherd’s task to feed the charges adequately, care for their aliments, keep them gathered together and put their well being before their own. I am not arguing that a particular political party does this worse or better or that any one national political ideal cannot lead to good shepherding. But I am asking that if God is really still speaking to us, what is being said if we do not choose to have the leadership “The Word of God” in the Bible and through Jesus calls us to? What does it mean if we would not want Jesus or the model he provided to lead our nation or even our state or local entities?
I know we can dismiss the idea and continue as people who do not desire to insist leaders act like a Good Shepherd. We can dismiss the text, even the metaphor or interpret it how we want. But I want to point out that reading the meaning of the Shepherd in our texts as subversive role model not only comports with the commandments to love neighbor, strangers and enemies but it fits to a tee the Word of God in Psalm 72 detailing the ideal ruler.
Psalm 72 is called “ A Psalm for Solomon” but we really do not know when it was written. What we do know is that it sets out the Bible version of what a head of state should be. We can what a good shepherd of people looks like in detail. And the text details not just what God expect leaders to do, but what God’s people and their leaders should expect. As we listen to this prayer for what a ruler ought to be, let us ponder why as a people we do or do not or presently cannot seek the Good Shepherd model for leadership outside of our family or church
Give the king thy judgments, O God, and thy righteousness unto the king’s son. He shall judge thy people with righteousness, and thy poor with judgment. The mountains shall bring peace to the people, and the little hills, by righteousness. He shall judge the poor of the people, he shall save the children of the needy, and shall break in pieces the oppressor. They shall fear thee as long as the sun and moon endure, throughout all generations.
He shall come down like rain upon the mown grass: as showers that water the earth. In his days shall the righteous flourish; and abundance of peace so long as the moon endureth. He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth. They that dwell in the wilderness shall bow before him; and his enemies shall lick the dust. The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall bring presents: the kings of Sheba and Seba shall offer gifts.
Yea, all kings shall fall down before him: all nations shall serve him. For he shall deliver the needy when he crieth; the poor also, and him that hath no helper. He shall spare the poor and needy, and shall save the souls of the needy. He shall redeem their soul from deceit and violence: and precious shall their blood be in his sight. And he shall live, and to him shall be given of the gold of Sheba: prayer also shall be made for him continually; and daily shall he be praised.
There shall be an handful of corn in the earth upon the top of the mountains; the fruit thereof shall shake like Lebanon: and they of the city shall flourish like grass of the earth.
His name shall endure for ever: his name shall be continued as long as the sun: and men shall be blessed in him: all nations shall call him blessed. Blessed be the LORD God, the God of Israel, who only doeth wondrous things. And blessed be his glorious name for ever: and let the whole earth be filled with his glory; Amen, and Amen. (Psa 72:1-19)
1. I searched here and there on the internet for information on sheep and also confirmed it and added to it after communicating with a local family that raises sheep.
2 Feasting on the Word Commentary, Year B, Vol 2, p 450
3 Feasting on the Word Commentary, Year B, Vol 2, p 453
4 Feasting on the Word Commentary, Year B, Vol 2, p 450
5 McCann, Clint, Great Psalms of the Bible, p. 44-58
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