"The Lord is my shepherd: therefore can I lack nothing." (Psalm
In the scriptures of the Old Testament, the image of the shepherd is
a symbol of divine government, and of human government, too, as an imitation
of the divine. Thus, God is addressed as shepherd: "Hear, 0 thou Shepherd
of Israel, thou that leadest Joseph like a sheep." (Psalm 80.1) And David,
the shepherd boy, divinely anointed, becomes the shepherd King of Israel.
And when Isaiah prophesies the coming deliverer, he too speaks of a shepherd:
"He shall lead his flock like a shepherd, and gather the lambs unto his
bosom." (Isaiah 40.1) And when Jesus, offspring of the House of David,
calls himself the "good shepherd," his hearers would certainly have all
this background in mind.
The image of the shepherd is a natural symbol of government. Not only
in ancient Israel, but also in ancient Greece, it served this purpose.
From the time of Homer on, the Greeks spoke of kingship in terms of shepherding
- a human office, no doubt, but also a reflection or imitation of the divine
government of the universe. The image of the shepherd is a natural and
universal symbol of divine and human government.
But there is a certain difficulty about the symbol. In the first book
of Plato's dialogue called the Republic, there is a conversation,
where Socrates is engaged in an argument with a Sophist called Thrasymachus,
on the subject of justice. At this particular point in the argument, they
are discussing the art of government, and the idea of the shepherd is introduced.
Thrasymachus accuses Socrates of naive foolishness. "You imagine," he says,
..that a shepherd studies the interests of his flocks, tending them
and fattening them up with some other end in view than his master's profit
or his own; and so you don't see that, in politics, the genuine ruler regards
his subjects exactly like sheep, and thinks of nothing else, night and
day, but the good he can get out of them for himself.
The gist of Socrates' reply is that although there may indeed be false
shepherds, it is the sole concern of the shepherd's art, as such, to do
the best for the charges put under its care. Its own best interest is sufficiently
provided for, so long as it does not fall short of all that shepherding
should imply. On that principle, it follows, he says, that any kind of
authority must, in its character of authority, consider solely what is
best for those under its care.
Thus, Jesus, in today's Gospel lesson, draws a distinction between the
good shepherd, who cares for the sheep, and the hireling, who is in the
business for what he can get out of it for himself. "I am the good shepherd,"
says Jesus. "The good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep." Jesus' authority
as shepherd, as governor of our lives, is established in his act of sacrifice:
"I lay down my life for the sheep." And his shepherding is good indeed.
His Resurrection - our Easter joy - is our foretaste of the green pastures
and still waters of eternal life. "Yea, though I walk through the valley
of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy
rod and thy staff comfort me." (Psalm 23.4)
The idea of Jesus as the good shepherd is certainly a very attractive
image, and it has inspired centuries of Christian devotion, and I suppose
there is no passage in the whole of scripture better-known or more loved
than the twenty-third Psalm, with its picture of divine shepherding. The
image is almost too pretty. One can be sentimentally attached to the image,
and altogether overlook the deeper levels of meaning it implies. It is
fundamentally an image of the divine governing of the universe, the good
shepherding of all things by God's wisdom and power.
In the earliest expressions of Christian art, the paintings which adorn
the walls of the catacombs - those narrow labyrinthine tunnels which served
as burial places in the early Christian centuries - a favorite theme is
Jesus as the good shepherd. It is natural and obvious enough, of course,
that the Risen Lord should be represented as shepherd of the dead. But
it's not just that. Jesus is represented there as shepherd of the stars
- the universal, cosmic shepherd: the Son of God. He is shown as "the power
of God and the wisdom of God," (1 Corinthians 1.24) that is, the good governorof
all that is, shepherding all things to their appointed end.
The image of the good shepherd is fundamentally an image of divine government,
an image of the universal providence of God in Christ. "Other sheep I have
which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they should hear
my voice; and there should be one flock, and one shepherd." It is a shepherding
which includes the whole creation. As St. Paul puts it in his letter to
the Romans, "the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of
the sons of God . . . because the creation itself will be set free from
its bondage to decay, and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of
God." (Romans 8.19,21)
The world has lots of hirelings, of course, who seem to be in it, as
Thrasymachus says, for what they can get out of it; and it is easy enough
to become cynical and doubtful about the divine government of things. But,
really, we need have no doubts on that score. God governs all things for
the best. Jesus' Resurrection is the ultimate witness of good shepherding:
it witnesses to God's power to bring the highest good out of the worst
evil. No doubt we have considerable capacities for wickedness, but it's
just foolish presumption to suppose that our wickedness can have the last
word. In the end, God's will is surely done.
That is the witness of the Resurrection, and that is the promise of
the Resurrection. And that is the witness and promise of this sacrament
we celebrate. Out of body broken and blood shed, the grace of God brings
new and eternal life. "The wolf cometh, and the hireling fleeth," but "the
good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep." That is good shepherding,
and with such shepherding, we lack nothing.