Shepherds and Sheep

These things have been on my mind a fair bit the past week or so, since these were prominent themes in the readings  (John 10:11-18, Psalm 23) for this past Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Easter, sometimes referred to as Good Shepherd Sunday.

I’ve been trying to think of analogies that would be easier for people in America in the 21st century to link to then shepherds and sheep, but what I find is that there isn’t an easy one that comes to mind.  Particularly as Americans, we largely disregard and further reject any forms of such persistent leadership.  We may have bosses or supervisors or employers, but these are recognized to be temporary, and subject to our dismissal at any time (through quitting our job).  The leadership of the father in a family unit has been steady denigrated over the past 40 years to the point where it is not only widely viewed as irrelevant but inappropriate and even offensive.  I struggle to find any suitable replacement analogy in our culture today.

I suspect this is not a good thing.

The Christian life is one of sheep and shepherds.  Jesus is, of course, ultimately the Good Shepherd.  Yet Christian leaders from the apostles on down are charged to imitate Jesus’ shepherd role in regards to God’s people.  Jesus commissions Peter in John 21:15-17 to continue the work of shepherding God’s people, as an extension, no doubt, of how Jesus shepherded Peter and the other disciples.   They are to do for and with others what Jesus has done for and with them.  Their efforts of course will fall short of the perfection of Jesus’ work with them, but the spirit of the work is to continue, and this ultimately presumes a degree of authority.  And it is authority that Americans have problems with, including in the Church.

That this authority is intended not just for the Apostles but rather for all leaders of God’s people is made clear by Peter himself, in 1 Peter 5:1-11.  His appeal presumes multiple things:

  1. there are sheep the faithful in Jesus Christ, therefore
  2. there are and need to be shepherds which naturally
  3. exercise oversight – willingly rather than grudgingly and
  4. this oversight is for the benefit of the sheep, not the benefit of the shepherds and
  5. not as a means for satisfying personal desires for control, or as an excuse to insist on doing things your particular way but rather
  6. consists of leading in large part by example rather than coercion, a method that may be effective in the long-run but is not nearly as easy or simple as demanding obedience, and therefore requires that
  7. shepherds should exercise humility, even as they carry out their duties as shepherds

Sheep need shepherds.  Jesus acknowledges in his Good Shepherd discourse of John 10 that there are shepherds who are unfaithful or more concerned with personal gain than the welfare of the sheep.  But these realities of a sinful world full of sinful sheep and shepherds don’t alter the fact that sheep still need shepherds.  And the fact that the shepherds are also themselves sheep doesn’t seem to preclude Jesus and the Apostles for maintaining this motif.

How does this dynamic play out in a culture where everyone is expected to be or encouraged to be their own – and largely only – shepherd?  Certainly it can and does lead to a lot of confusion in the sheep pens and pastures that are the Church.  Certainly it will lead to the idea that shepherds in Christ are really no different than supervisors or employers – that people are free to reject their leadership in search of a preferred leadership style.  Or it may lead to the notion that the sheep are really the ones calling the shots – all of the shots, and that shepherds are only there to affirm and carry out the will of the sheep.  And certainly it does at times lead to shepherds who abuse their authority for their own benefit, or insist on a vision the sheep have no ability or interest in following.

But sheep and shepherds remain, 2000 years after Jesus observed them day in and day out and saw fit to utilize this motif, and despite the fact that sheep and shepherds are both equally scarce these days for the vast majority of people and Christians.  Which means we have to keep trying to figure out how to be faithful shepherds and sheep.  Together.

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