“The Good Shepherd”
Message preached on
April 22, 2018
The image of a shepherd is an
important one in the Bible, which is only natural, for the roots of this
book go back to a wandering people. Sheep are portable, an important
feature for nomads who follow the call of God. Abraham and his children
were all shepherds. Recall the moment when God tested that first
patriarch’s faith, calling him to sacrifice his son, Isaac. At the last
moment God substituted a ram. Consider grandson Jacob, who tricked his
nearly blind Dad into giving him a deathbed blessing with a bit of
sheepskin. Such an act nearly cost Jacob his life, as brother Esau’s
threats forced his early departure from the territory. Later on Jacob
fooled his father-in-law, himself a sly rascal, out of a good portion of
their common flock. He needed those animals as he returned to his family,
using them to placate his brother, hoping the years of separation had
calmed the anger.
Sheep figured prominently in the
exodus story. The blood of a lamb, provided by some shepherd, was dabbed
upon the doorposts of the children of Israel. The occupants of these homes
survived that terrifying night when the angel of death passed them over
and struck down the firstborn of Egypt, a story our Jewish friends
remember in their celebration of Passover. Shepherds were vital in the
40-year wilderness experience that followed, and not just for the food or
the wool they provided. Sheep played an important role in the sacrifices
instituted on Mt. Sinai, ritual that continued even in Jesus’ day.
When our Lord spoke of shepherds,
he was touching upon a key feature of the ongoing story of God’s people.
In this day and age, we may have a hard time associating with this image.
After all, how many of us have any contact with an actual shepherd? The
meat we pick up from the frozen food section, and the sweater we get from
the store shelf is about as close as we come. If anything, we have a
somewhat romanticized view of shepherds, based in part upon our reading of
the Bible, especially texts like the 23rd Psalm.
In Jesus’ day, shepherds were not
all that highly thought of.
Since they spent so much time out in the wilderness, leading their flocks
from place to place, they were considered a bit dirty in the eyes of most
people. It was a job few really wanted, often tossed onto the youngest
child who couldn’t toss it on anyone else. Remember David who become King
of Israel? Our first picture of him in the Bible is out in the hills
somewhere taking care of the family’s flock. He was youngest, you know.
Nobody expected him to amount to much. His father, Jesse, was quite
surprised when Samuel asked for him on that secret journey to Bethlehem
behind King Saul’s back. God chose a shepherd to be anointed as the next
leader of God’s people. How ridiculous!
Shepherds were furthermore
thought of as untrustworthy characters. The oral law of Israel actually
forbade the purchase of milk or wool from shepherds for fear these items
might be stolen goods. In Jesus’ day, good fathers didn’t want their sons
to go into the trade, which seems quite strange to us seeing the good
press the position receives in the Bible. After all, many of the Psalms
are attributed to the shepherd-King David, and their lofty language often
reverts to the nitty-gritty life of a sheep-herder. No, when Jesus walked
this earth, folks weren’t romantic about shepherds like we are today about
cowboys. It was a dirty trade, ripe for abuse in most people’s eyes.
It’s no wonder that there was a
shortage of shepherds - that is, the ones who actually owned and managed
their own flocks, who were invested personally in the business.
Regardless, sheep were an important part, not only of the ongoing story of
the people and their religious life (lambs were still sacrificed in the
Temple), but also the economy. Meat, milk, wool - all were vital to the
survival of a people who no longer wandered from place to place as their
ancestors had. If, then, there were few shepherds by trade, somebody had
to do the work. Most often it ended up in the hands of what was called a
hireling, someone paid to take care of the animals, who had no personal
investment in their well-being.
With all this in mind, it does
seem strange, doesn’t it, for Jesus to call himself
“the good shepherd.” Then again, Jesus often did that, connecting
himself up with questionable characters like, for instance, Samaritans,
prostitutes, tax collectors. For those who first heard him speak of being
a good shepherd, this would’ve been a mixed message. Who could deny, after
all, the likes of King David and his wonderful psalm of a Lord who
shepherds his people to green pastures and still waters, and guides them
through dark valleys to the abundant tableland of a high meadow in late
Spring; who protects them from predators and who cares for their scratches
and wounds? Who could argue with the prophets, like Jeremiah and Ezekiel,
who spoke of God as a shepherd who faithfully leads his people, in
contrast to the Kings and other political and religious elite who are only
in it for what they can get out of it? No, even though shepherding was a
highly suspect, and lowly thought of occupation, it was too important a
part of the story of the descendants of Abraham, even from day one, to be
We can do our own form of
ignoring by romanticizing this picture the Bible portrays. It becomes real
to us as we allow the living God to speak in words that both challenge and
comfort. Ponder what Jesus said. “I
know my own and my own know me.” The consolation of those words is
that our Lord knows us intimately, by name. The 139th Psalm speaks of this
so well. “Even
before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, you know it completely”
Of course, such knowledge goes beyond what could be expected of an earthly
shepherd, but God is no ordinary handler of sheep, just as we are not dumb
animals (even though sometimes it may seem otherwise). God’s knowledge of
us is a comfort, but it’s also a threat, isn’t it? If God sees what is
truly in the heart, then we, who so often live out of mixed motives, have
a greater accountability we ultimately cannot deny.
The shepherd King David himself
could not hide his heart from God, even though the Lord was strangely
taken by it. As the most powerful man in his empire, David could not get
away with the arranged death of Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband. God was not
fooled by David’s subterfuge, trying to hide adultery and murder, and
confronted him through the prophet Nathan. It was a subtle story Nathan
told that led David to see what God saw, and to indict himself with his
own words. That’s the threat of God’s intimate knowledge of us. Of course,
we can stick our fingers in our ears, and close our eyes to the truth.
However, when we ignore the challenge of the shepherd’s “rod” (in the
words of that much-loved psalm), we miss out on the true comfort of the
In his own words, Jesus is our
Good Shepherd for one primary reason: he lays down his life for his own.
For all the negative images of a shepherd that abounded in the minds of
his listeners back then, there was a major difference between a shepherd
and a hireling which was to the credit of the shepherd. When it came to
the care of sheep, no one could doubt the commitment it took. When your
very life is invested in the wellbeing of something, it matters what you
do to take care of that investment. For the shepherd, his family (if he
had one) depended upon that flock, not just upon what he was paid. A lost
sheep may have meant the difference between making it or breaking it in a
I know they weren’t sheep this week, but you may have heard of how
Allison and I became cowboys (not shepherds) last Monday. Looking out my
office window, I saw a strange sight. Several cows wandered by on our
parking lot. The electric fence was down in the field behind the church.
We helped corral these cattle, my cane substituting for a lasso. But, I
confess, I was more concerned with the mess they were making on my
rain-soaked lawn than I was with them as dairy cows. I was like a hireling
– just helping out the Prigels for my own self-interest.
A real shepherd (like a real
dairy farmer) is invested in his flock, so much so that even one lost
sheep (or cow) matters. Remember Jesus’ story about that? His hearers back
then couldn’t deny that a true shepherd wouldn’t cut his losses and leave
the lost lamb to its own devices. A hireling might, but not a shepherd, in
spite of all his dirtiness and his shady character in the eyes of many
people. Furthermore, when danger lurked, a predator on the loose, a real
shepherd doesn’t run off, but stands in harm’s way, between the threat and
his flock. A hireling couldn’t be expected to give up his life, possibly,
for something in which he was not personally invested, especially if the
peril was a pack of wild dogs. What can a shepherd’s staff do against such
an onslaught? A true shepherd would not even ask the question. He would do
what needed to be done, risking his own life.
And that’s what Jesus did. He
willfully stood in harm’s way to save his own. He did it because he was
and continues to be invested in this flock called God’s people. He wasn’t
God’s hireling, paid to do God’s dirty work. The one to whom the flock
belongs, and the good shepherd are one and the same. In the eyes of God it
is not an oxymoron to combine the words “good” and “shepherd,” for there
is no contradiction. God’s “goodness and mercy,” in the words of the
Psalmist, “follow (us) all the days of (our) life,” and beyond. It’s not
just during the dark valley times that our Lord leads, carrying us if need
be. It’s also through the
green pasture and still water times, which can be just as dangerous. If
left to their own devices, a flock of sheep can overgraze a pasture and
thus bring about their own famine.
Of course, we’re not sheep, and
furthermore, wild mountain sheep are not as mindless as their domesticated
relatives. All images have their limits, right? However, we need to hear
about God’s care for us. Like a shepherd in the days of Jesus, our Lord
leads us not from behind, but from ahead. There is nowhere to which God
calls us that he hasn’t already been there ahead of us paving the way. We
follow. We aren’t pushed.
That’s a major difference.
There is much more that could be
said about good shepherding. I’ve only addressed half the picture. You
see, Jesus calls us to shepherd one another. Not that we could come near
to how he shepherds us, but that’s a given which undergirds all our
efforts. We are called to be shepherds, not hirelings, to be invested and
care about God’s flock. Now, you do pay me to be a shepherd of this
particular flock, but I am not a hireling. I’m not saying that
self-righteously, but by way of self-reminder, to emphasize to myself that
my investment is not what I receive, but what I give.
That’s true for us all, you know.
We are shepherds of one another, not hirelings. There is a major
difference between the two, as I said. Hirelings are not invested. When
the going gets rough, they’re “outa here.” Real shepherds stick through
thick and thin.
Ultimately, though, this
morning’s message isn’t so much about us, but about the Good Shepherd, who
“knows his own, and they know him,” who cares for his own, and who
willingly laid down his life ... for us. He lives! And he is still our