In our gospel lesson for today, Jesus is talking to religious leaders, in this case, Pharisees. So, when Jesus says, “Very truly I tell you,” the “you” is plural and refers to those religious leaders, although the community hearing the text gets the message as well. Jesus is deliberately contrasting two kinds of leaders – good shepherds and hired hands – who lead the community, which is compared to a flock of sheep.
Shepherds were a common sight throughout the Roman Empire in the first century. The role of shepherd also has religious and cultural connotations. In Hebrew Scripture, many of the leading figures in the history of Israel began as shepherds – God appeared to Moses when he was tending the sheep of his father-in-law. David, who would become the celebrated king of Israel, learned the art of war by protecting his flocks from predators. The term shepherd was often used to refer to Israel’s leaders and to God. The Greek classics, which provided the foundation for education in the Greco-Roman world, used shepherd as a metaphor for model leaders like King Agamemnon. Philosophers and orators often compared the art of governing people to the art of shepherding a flock.
The image of the shepherd appears throughout the gospel narratives, often specifically referring to Jesus as the Good Shepherd. Shepherd can have both positive and negative associations – in the first century, shepherds were pretty near the bottom of society, they were kind of smelly from hanging out with sheep, sometimes condemned as unscrupulous when they pastured their flocks on other people’s land or pilfered lambs or kids from another flock. (Shepherds also tended goats.) People referred to shepherds then the way we refer to used car salesmen today, whether fairly or unfairly. Today we recognize the term Good Shepherd as a name for Jesus.
The fourth Sunday in Easter is designated as Good Shepherd Sunday, and in our reading for this year, Jesus boldly proclaims, “I am the good shepherd.” He is claiming to be the shepherd as described in Psalm 23, a powerful metaphor today but even more powerful to his Jewish audience in the first century. They all knew that God, or Yahweh, is the good shepherd in the beloved 23rd Psalm. The Pharisees would have understood and been scandalized by the fact that when he called himself the Good Shepherd, he was referring to himself as God. He also makes it clear that if any harm comes to him, if he lays down his life, it will be because he allows it to happen, and he will overcome it and will not be permanently silenced. This is a much more radical story than it first appears to be. It is no wonder the religious authorities felt threatened by him.
David is thought to be the author of many of the psalms, including Psalm 23. It is probably the best known of the psalms and is traditionally read at both Jewish and Christian funerals. What was David expressing as he wrote these words? It seems that looking back on his life, he saw God’s blessings everywhere. In spite of all the authority and blessings that God granted to David, in many ways David had a hard life. He knew what it meant to walk through the valley of the shadow of death, because his life was threatened many times. He also suffered the loss of loved ones in many ways and he was stalked by all kinds of enemies.
Yet for David, God was the unchanging Yahweh, his Lord and shepherd who was always faithful to the covenantal promises. And so, as David faced his future, he composed these words in the psalm, “Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life…” Those are covenantal words which sum up all that God promises us. As David understood, it doesn’t mean that nothing bad will ever happen to us, but that God will ultimately make all bad things work together for the good of God’s people.
David believed that no matter what happened in his life from the beginning to the end, no matter how dark the shadows in the valley, no matter how fierce the enemies, God’s goodness and love would always be there. We don’t have to ask for those promises, because they are always with us. Nothing can separate us, and in the end, love will win over whatever evil comes our way and will turn it into goodness.
David sums it all up by saying, “and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” That image was important to David. He wanted to build a house for the Lord, an image that inspired his son Solomon to build the first great temple in Jerusalem. Yet David understood that any house of the Lord was not meant for human habitation, it was a metaphor for being close to God and to live in God’s presence at all times. David believed that no matter what happened, his future was secure in the promise of God.
In his role as shepherd, Jesus constantly found ways to build relationships with those who needed his presence, even at great risk to his own life. Ultimately, he gave his life for us, his sheep. Every time we hear of another mass shooting, we often hear stories about those who died saving others. On February 14 at Margory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, three teachers died because they put themselves between the gunman and their students. That is a sacrifice that should not have been demanded of them, but one that humbles us as we honor them and try to envision in what ways we can lay down our lives for others. Usually that demands sacrifices of time, talent and/or treasure but sometimes it demands a literal sacrifice of our lives.
Shepherds have no purpose unless they have a flock to tend. We believe that an important part of faith is belonging to the sheepfold, the community of faith. Having faith by one’s self is a lonely enterprise, missing the support, the joy and, yes, the challenges of being church together. Repenting, praying, giving thanks, listening, learning and breaking bread together strengthen our bonds so we can serve the world, sharing the confidence we have in God’s promises with others.
The image of shepherd is commonly applied to both bishops and pastors. Bishops – who carry the shepherd’s crook as one of their signs of office – are to shepherd the flock and oversee the “assistant shepherds”, the pastors who care for the sheepfolds, smaller units of the larger flock. Bishops and pastors are called to be model shepherds, never hired hands. We are never to answer the call to vocation for purposes of a paycheck, career enhancement or personal success. Our lives are dictated by the needs of the community. We always remember that Jesus is the true Good Shepherd, and we humbly follow his example as best as we can.
As this sheepfold, this community of faith, contemplates the task of choosing a new pastor, you can walk through that valley of shadows confident that God, the one who is shepherd over all of us, accompanies you every step of the way. Because ministry is a vocation, there is a person who will be called to serve this congregation faithfully, building relationships, calling each one by name, inspired by the model Jesus gave us. You have to trust, as David did, in the words of the psalm that God will continue to guide you, to restore your souls, to feed you and bless you abundantly all along the journey. “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow you all the days of your lives, and you will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Amen.