While I am normally a mature–and let’s be honest, sophisticated person–every time I hear Handel’s Messiah, I giggle hysterically when the choristers belt out, “We like sheep. . .” Sure I know Handel uses the word “like” in order to make a simile, but for a brief moment it feels as if Handel has taken a break from telling us the glorious story of the birth of Christ and is just expressing affection for. . .well. . .sheep.
Maybe my giggles are just a way of disguising my discomfort. After all, Handel goes on to compare US to sheep who are easily led astray. US! We are independent, free thinking, over educated human beings, not sheep! Sure, we have a tendency to go astray or follow the crowd occassionally. Baaaa. Once in a while some of us go out and buy something because someone else made it look really cool. Baaa. And, sometimes we fudge ethically to make a little more money so we can keep up with the Joneses. Baaa. And every so often we go into the voting booth, having done no research on the positions of the candidate. Baaaa.
Okay. Fine. Humans may have a few sheeplike qualities. But still, we can trust our families, our friends, our culture, our government to guide us wisely, right? If we decided to structure our life around the principles that we found on television, we’d turn out okay.
And if trusting the television felt shaky, we could certainly trust the government to help us make right choices.
And if trusting the government did not work out for us, we could certainly trust the Church, right?
Well, not necessarily. In today’s reading from the Gospel of John, Jesus warns us about the dangers of shepherds who are only hired hands. Jesus is speaking to a group of Pharisees. A few days back, Jesus cured a blind man. Instead of congratulating the blind man, maybe buying him a round at the local watering hole, the Pharisees immediately start accusing the no-longer-blind man of lying and then pump him for details about Jesus. When he does not give the Pharisees the answers they are looking for, they kick the formerly blind man out of town!
Jesus hears about this event comes back into town, finds the blind man and the Pharisees, and begins telling the Pharisees this long parable about the Good Shepherd. We tend to think of the parable of the Good Shepherd as a sweet one. Gentle Jesus carefully leading us. . . but Jesus uses this story to ream out the Pharisees for being such jerks and bad caretakers of their flocks.
Jesus’ mention of shepherds would remind the Pharisees of Ezekiel 34-in which the Lord berates the Kings of Israel for taking advantage of their people, while benefiting themselves. The Lord says through the prophet Ezekiel, “Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep.” Jesus updates the image and portrays the Pharisees as false shepherds who do not protect the sheep. You can imagine their outrage.
They had been hard at work, crossing their doctrinal Ts and dotting their theologial “I”s. Who is Jesus to tell them they have been careless? They did not think they had done anything wrong at all. In fact, they had been upholding traditions and truth, while Jesus burst in from nowhere to disrupt all their hard work.
The Pharisees miss the point-Jesus is interested in the welfare of the sheep, not the details of how the sheep fold is constructed.
But Jesus, in the parable of the Good Shepherd, is doing much more than criticizing the Pharisees. He lays himself out as the counterpoint to the image of the hired hand. The hired hand, by the very nature of his job, is not terribly interested in the welfare of the sheep. He will do a good job protecting the sheep as long as there are not difficult challenges, but the hired hand does not love the sheep like the Good Shepherd does. The hired hand is ultimately most interested in the hired hand’s welfare.
But the Good Shepherd’s eye is always on the sheep. The Good Shepherd cultivates intimacy with the sheep. He will guide the sheep, find the sheep when they are lost, and ultimately lay his life down for the sheep, rather than have them be attacked by the wolf.
Who do we choose as our shepherds? We appoint husbands, wives, lovers, parents, children, employers, best friends, movie stars, politicians, priests, writers, teachers, and philosophers as our shepherds, but even the best of these is only human, and subject to all of human weakness. At their best a devoted spouse carries only the shadow of the love that the Good Shepherd has for you, the best philosopher carries only a shadow of the wisdom of the Good Shepherd, the best friend has only the shadow of the loyalty of the Good Shepherd.
Of course we are called to be in relationship and to love and learn from the people in our lives, but we must be careful under whose leadership we place ourselves. Recently I watched Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. This documentary traced the many steps that led to the Enron scandal. What struck me most is the culture of ethical murkiness that Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skillings created. Traders who came into the company with no illegal background, quickly assimilated into a culture that rewarded illegal transactions as long as they made the company money. And, as we all know, the average person who worked for Enron walked away penniless, while the corporate leaders made hundreds of millions of dollars. These shepherds did not care about their sheep.
Enron is a dramatic example, but every day we have choices to make about whom we follow. Whether it is choosing an employer, a spouse, a friend, a social club, a political party or a church, we put ourselves in a position of trusting. We trust that others will look out for our best interest, but that is not always the case.
The good news is that The Good Shepherd does always look out for our best interest. Following the Good Shepherd may not lead to instant gratification, wealth or conventional success. Following the Good Shepherd may not even always feel good. But we can trust that the Good Shepherd knows us, loves us, and will guide us with care. We can trust that the Good Shepherd will be with us in pleasant pastures, beside still waters and through the dark and dangerous places in our journeys.
You cannot get so lost that the Good Shepherd will not find you, put you over his shoulders and bring you back to the fold. You cannot be so threatened that the Good Shepherd will not stand between you and the threat; and help you absorb the pain. Most of all, you can trust the Good Shepherd to lead you into a life of integrity and meaning.
The Good Shepherd is a shepherd who will not abuse you, not manipulate you, not take advantage of you. He will use you, but he will use you for good, both good in the world and good for your own development as a Christian.
To follow the Good Shepherd, we must know the Good Shepherd. Earlier in this passage from John, Jesus explains that the sheep follow the Good Shepherd because they know his voice. We must learn the Good Shepherd’s voice in order to be his followers. If we don’t know his voice, we have no way to sort out what which is the Good Shepherd’s way and which is merely the way of hired hands.
There is no magic trick to learning the Good Shepherd’s voice-the easiest way is to learn about the Good Shepherd by reading the Bible. A lot of people in America have a lot to say about Jesus these days. Instead of relying on them, or even on your priests, by reading the Gospels and Epistles you can start learning Jesus’ voice for yourself. And if you create some silence in your life, and if you listen carefully, you might even hear the Good Shepherd call you by name.