Driving down Leach Highway, some months ago, I found myself stuck in traffic behind a truck ferrying live sheep down to the Fremantle wharves. The trailer had four or five decks, each crammed with sheep who hardly had room to move, let alone lie down, and I noticed one poor animal with its leg uncomfortably caught in the steel barrier and sticking out the side of the vehicle. It was a hot day, and a distressing sight, and I couldn't help but think of the nightmare voyage that lie ahead for these animals who it seems are considered nothing more than commodities in our economic system.
Jesus' description of himself, then, for all that centuries of Christian art have invested it with a kind of romantic sentimentalism, should be as jolting and unfamiliar to us as it would have been in the original context. Aussie sheep aren't fluffy and plump and white, they don't get called by name and they are herded and slaughtered with regard to nothing much more than their monetary value. It would have been a jolting image for Jesus contemporary hearers for a different reason – yes, ancient shepherds did love and care for their sheep individually – not only did the lives of shepherds and their families depend on the safety of the herd but the economic relationship between them was more personal and holistic, sheep provided milk and wool and dung for fires and gardens and eventually, but not primarily, meat. Families lived with their animals in a fairly intimate proximity, and cared for them as part of their domestic chores. The metaphor of the relationship between the sheep and their shepherd was appropriate – shepherds travelled long distances with their sheep and protected them and brought them safely home – but the image was nonetheless confronting because shepherds themselves were regarded as dirty and smelly and uncouth. Peasants. Not nice. The image is of a guide who shares the risks faced daily by the animals, a companion who lives rough and gets her hands dirty, who rescues the lost by being prepared to go out into the bush and find them.
The image of the Good Shepherd is one of the most comforting and enduring metaphors that Christianity has to offer, it connects at a gut level with our desire to be known and cared for, and offers us an image of a God who shares the wanderings and travails of our lives, whose knowledge of our ways never condemns but consistently cares for and guides us. It's a true image, an image that we instinctively recognise and can relate to because it resonates both with our best impulses of care for others and our deepest unspoken needs to be held and known and loved.
I'd like to suggest however that it is also a challenging image, and a good image to guide our life as a congregation.
For a start, Jesus doesn't invent the metaphor of the shepherd, and the model for his use of this image is not necessarily the 23rd Psalm. In the prophetic writings the metaphor is used in reference to the leaders of Israel, for example in Ezekiel chapter 34, the shepherds of Israel are accused of having neglected the sheep. God accuses the rulers of the people, and complains that they have not searched for their sheep or protected them or cared for them, but have only looked out for their own interests. And God says, I'm going to put a stop to that and I will search for the sheep and bring them back and care for them myself. And Jesus in the passage we read this morning makes a similar claim, talking about the hired hand who doesn't own the sheep or care for them. The ones who were supposed to be caring for God's people have neglected them. And so the metaphor causes us to reflect on who the shepherds are in our own situation, who are the ones that today are supposed to be caring for God's people and leading and feeding and protecting them? Which makes Jesus Good Shepherd image an uncomfortable reflection first and foremost for church leaders and clergy, who have to ask themselves, 'how far am I prepared to go to find the lost and marginalised and bring them back into the community of care? What risks am I prepared to take, whose burdens am I prepared to share? Am I a hired hand or do I love those entrusted to my care?' And it is a reflection that inevitably leads to some self-indictment. It's a standard of care that we fail at.
Of course, priests and church leaders aren't – or shouldn't be – the only shepherds. If the task of discipleship is to take Jesus as the model for our own lives, to live in imitation of Christ – then we should all find ourselves reflecting on the relationships we have in which we ourselves are supposed to be the shepherds. The relationships in which it is us who have the responsibility to care for the vulnerable, the hungry or the lost. Whatever our particular roles or responsibilities, as a parent or an employee or a friend, as Christians we are called to this standard of care – a friend remarked the other day that the image of the Good Shepherd reminded her of a washing machine. Clothes don't get washed properly unless they are agitated – the ones on the outside need to be brought into the centre and the ones in the privileged position in the centre need to be pushed to the outside. The shepherd's task is to notice the needs of those on the outside – to be prepared to move out of their own comfort zone to befriend and include – to be prepared to challenge and support those who are comfortably living in the privileged centre to take a risk, to explore and to help others. Shepherds need sharp eyes, soft hearts and strong shoulders. Shepherds are attuned to the needs of others, less concerned with their own needs because they know they also can trust the one who cares for them. We all get the opportunity to be shepherds in many contexts – how well are we doing? Do we need to pray for the grace to be a bit more shepherd-y?
We are also – all sheep. It's easy when we read this sort of metaphor to forget that the sheep are not passive, and not stupid. Yes, sheep get a bad press, a lot of the time. They get used as a metaphor for dull conformism. We probably don't much care the notion that we are all sheep. But the sheep in this situation bear some responsibility – it is their task to recognise the one who is calling them, to correctly discern whose voice they are hearing. Not always easy. We hear many, many competing voices in our lives, voices that clamour for our attention, and we generate a few internal voices of our own as well. St Ignatius of Loyola coined the phrase, the discernment of spirits, meaning the task of working out whether or not it is really God telling me to go there or do that or spend my time and energy on the other – is that God's voice? Or is it the voice of self-interest, or repressed desire, or vanity? Is it the voice of long-forgotten guilt, is it the pressure of social obligation? Or is it God? And there are ways to listen, ways to learn to recognise the authentic sound of God's voice in our lives so that we can decide which of the competing voices we should attend to. This is the task of Christian spirituality, which is also the task of acknowledging the truth about ourselves, recognising and taking responsibility for the difference between our desires and our needs. The task of the sheep is to know the centre, to recognise and stay in connection with the shepherd, and to learn to trust.
There's another task for sheep also, which is the task of living with the other sheep. This job is perhaps even harder, especially in our hyper-individualistic society! The task of making room, of trusting that the authentic life of a sheep can best be lived not by going off alone but by remaining in community. By being part of a flock, which means that the needs of the whole community become your needs, and the needs of the most vulnerable members of the flock are given extra attention. The whole flock suffers when any are neglected. It is not just top-down care that characterises the symbiosis between shepherd and sheep. The sheep care for one another in the security of the flock and that, of course, should be the primary characteristic of our lives as Christians and as a church.
The shepherd, however, also has other sheep. The size of the flock, its membership, are not fixed. It can never be a cosy little community, a flock that defines its own identity by keeping others out, because the whole characteristic of this flock – as defined by the Shepherd whose task specifically is to travel far and wide to collect stragglers and bring them back into the centre – this flock has got fuzzy boundaries and permeable edges. We can never find a comfortable self-definition by prescribing who is in and who is out – because the shepherd keeps bringing home more strays and plonking them down in the middle of us. Expecting us to move over and make a nice warm space for them. The shepherd's standard of care and inclusiveness defines how we as sheep must behave as well. Again the washing machine image. The ones that most need to be brought in are the ones who are left out. And so we are forced to examine the ways we ourselves marginalise and exclude others – on the grounds of ethnicity, or religion, on the grounds of disability, on the grounds of social status. Are there some people who, when they come here, feel less than welcome? Why? What responsibility do we have for that?
And, finally, the shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. It is a reference, of course, to the crucifixion, the death that brings life and the disintegration that brings unity. The shepherd metaphor is spot-on, as the shepherd in ancient life bears the risks of predators and the depredations of human competitors and bandits. There is the risk of violence and evil, even within the sheepfold of God's people. But Jesus reveals here the secret; this death is neither a scapegoating nor a victory of evil over good, because he lays his life down by choice, choosing the way of forgiveness over retribution. This is the ultimate learning, both for sheep and for shepherds – breaking the cycle of violence by refusing to play its dreary game of tit for tat, instead transforming human selfishness and violence into the energy and power of forgiveness and making possible a future where before there was only a dead-end.
So how are we doing? If the image of the Good Shepherd is not just a cosy comforter but a mission statement and a challenge for people who solemnly assure one another that we are the body of Christ – are we living like this? That's the question.