"The Lord is my shepherd: therefore can I lack nothing." (Psalm
language of the word of God in Holy Scripture is not often the language of
precise theology; and that, no doubt is just as well, because such language has
very limited accessibility. The language of the word of God is more commonly
the language of metaphor and parable, the language of poetic images, which have
direct, immediate appeal to our imagination, and are inexhaustably rich with
layers and levels of meaning and implication.
image is the theme of today's Gospel lesson. Jesus calls himself the Good
Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep. It is an image which has
immediate appeal, and has an impact which is direct and powerful. All through
the centuries of Christian devotion, all through the centuries of Christian art,
this has been a favourite symbol and title of our Saviour.
It is an
image which has immediate appeal; but is also an image replete with rich levels
of meaning and implication, which deserve careful and thoughtful meditation.
Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd; and when he does that, he is echoing the
language of the prophets of ancient Israel, who spoke of God as the shepherd of
his people. "He shall feed his flock like a shepherd!', says Isaiah, "he shall
gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently
lead those that are with young." For the prophets, the image of the shepherd is
the symbol of God's care for his people, watching over Israel, nourishing them
with the word of his truth, and delivering them from every peril. "The Lord is
my shepherd", cries the Psalmist, "therefore can I lack nothing. He shall feed
me in a green pasture, and lead me forth beside the waters of comfort It is even
he that shall keep my soul."
Jesus takes up in his image of the Good Shepherd: he is Son of David,
Shepherd-King of Israel. But he is more; and he goes on to extend the
implications of the image: "Other sheep I have", he says, "which are not of this
fold; them also must I bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be
one flock and one shepherd".
He is Son
of David, Shepherd-King of Israel; but God's new Israel, God's new kingdom of
the Spirit, is universal, and therefore Jesus is the universal shepherd. When
early Christian artists adorned the catacombs with pictures, one of their themes
was Jesus the Good Shepherd. What they had first in mind, no doubt, was Jesus
as shepherd of the dead. But, remarkably, they represented the Good Shepherd as
shepherd of the stars. He is the cosmic shepherd, the universal shepherd, whose
watchful care infuses and governs the whole order of creation, and brings it to
its final redemption in himself: "there shall be one flock and one shepherd".
celebrate Jesus as the Good Shepherd, as we do today, what we celebrate is the
universal providence of God, made manifest to us in the death and resurrection
of Jesus Christ; and that is, of course, why this Gospel lesson belongs to
Eastertide. We celebrate the universal providence of God, that watchful care,
that unwearied love which governs all creation, from the highest angel to the
least atom. "Not a sparrow falleth without your heavenly father." By ways
mysterious, past our finding out, the world is shepherded. Even from our evils,
he makes good to come; even from our dying, he makes resurrection. "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 staff comfort me".
celebrate the providence of God, and it is profoundly important that we do so,
because that is the basic principle upon which our moral and spiritual life as
Christians must be founded. The ultimate truth of things is not evil, but good;
the power which truly governs at this and every moment is the love of God. "O
God, thou hast searched me out and known me; thou knowest my down-sitting and
up-rising: thou understandest my thoughts long before". That all-embracing
providence is sure and steadfast, and surely manifest in Jesus Christ. He is
the Good Shepherd who gives his life for the sheep.
hireling, the time-server-perhaps our own selves in our moments of worldly
calculation-would persuade us otherwise. The hireling would persuade us that
the world. is governed by blind fortune, or by chance, and that the principle
of our life must be expediency. But, "When the wolf cometh, he fleeth, because
he is an hireling, and careth not for the sheep". That hireling has about him a
very plausible air of common-sense and practicality; he seems to know how to
deal with this world, and get out of it what he can. He seems a fine, worldly
sort of fellow, who knows his way around: just the sort of guide a silly sheep
might think he needs in a very complicated and confusing world. But, alas; the
wolf does come, and "the hireling fleeth". Nor should we blame him, really.
His principle is expediency, and he simply follows the principle for which the
silly sheep admired him. There is nothing surprising about it, except, perhaps,
our own capacity for such folly.
celebrate today the shepherd, and not the hireling; we celebrate the good, not
the expedient. We celebrate the providence which shepherds our life with
watchful care, despite our sheepish foolishness; which shepherds our life with
watchful care, even "through the valley of the shadow", even when "the wolf
cometh". And it is profoundly appropriate that we celebrate this in Eastertide,
for it is in the miracle of Easter that we see expediency decisively overthrown,
and God's good providence decisively manifest. God brings good from our evil;
God brings life from death.
is what we celebrate each time we celebrate this holy sacrament. For here,
Christ dies: his body broken, and his blood outpoured. "The good shepherd
giveth his life for the sheep". But here Christ lives, and gives himself to be
our own new life. and thus, this sacrament is sign and pledge of that good
shepherding which brings us to the fold of God's eternal Kingdom.
is my shepherd Surely, his loving kindness and mercy shall follow me all the
days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever."