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Sunday, April 21, 2013

Rehabbing Shepherds, Subverting "God"?

This past December, in preparing for the music we sing before Christmas midnight mass, I was doing a little research on shepherds in first century Israel. We seemed to have a shepherd thing running through the pre-service music I had chosen, and rather than have it just be a happy accident, in the context of sort of "celebrating" this Lucan contribution to the Christmas myth, I thought maybe I'd weave the songs together with a loose narrative to explore the question, "Why shepherds in the overture to this gospel?"

I never actually wrote the narrative, but when this Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Easter came up with its gospel and psalmic imagery that "we are...the sheep of the flock," I went back through the research to think about it all again. Of course, I don't have the chops to come to any really satisfying conclusions, but I am left with a couple of questions. Is the purpose of the shepherd imagery to rehab the image of shepherd who may have gotten a bum deal, like tax collectors and prostitutes and other collateral damage of the Roman occupation, the ritually impure collaborators? Might Jesus's sense of fairness, remembered and recorded by the gospel writers in the wake of the death and resurrection of the Lord, have made him want to lift up the image of these folks? And the other question is, if the shepherd is the shady character he's made out to be in (some of) the extra-biblical literature of the day, would the teaching Christ in his oblique, parabolic way have been offering a way to subvert an idolatrous image of God, moving God out of the throne room and into the field, away from the seraphim and into the midst of sheep? Doesn't it make you wonder?


There are good shepherds and bad shepherds in Israel's scripture and tradition. Certainly some of the heroes of Israel were shepherds. Patriarchs like Abraham and Isaac, prophets like Moses and Hosea, even kings like David were shepherds. God is referred to in Isaiah and the psalms as the Shepherd of Israel, and the true shepherd of Israel pronounces woe upon the shepherds who delude, cheat, and mislead the people, among the often-colluding ruling political, economic, and priestly classes of the land. All of that imagery is the canvas upon which the evangelists paint their portraits of Jesus. Those heart-sealed images are the tonality and rhythm out of which the song of the gospels rises, and when we hear gospel notes of the "shepherd," we're meant to hear the echoes of those foundational stories, much in the way a song or poem today might quote an image or a melody from before, or the way a title of a novel or movie ("Inherit the Wind," "Sins of the Fathers") is meant to evoke a semiotic field from biblical or other literature. In any event, Israel is the "flock of the Lord," and those who shepherd the flock do so in the name of the Holy One, and are admonished to lead the people of God with the same protective care as the true Shepherd. Woe to those who do otherwise.





Joachim Jeremias, the celebrated German biblical scholar of the last century, reported various non-biblical references that shed light on the esteem (or lack of it) in which shepherds were held at the time of Jesus. "Jeremias describes a shepherd's life: 'The dryness of the ground made it necessary for the flocks of sheep and cattle to move about during the rainless summer and to stay for months at a time in isolated areas, far from the owner's home. Hence, herding sheep was an independent and responsible job; indeed, in view of the threat of wild beasts and robbers, it could even be dangerous. Sometimes the owner himself (Luke 15:6; John 10:12) or his sons did the job. But usually it was done by hired shepherds, who only too often did not justify the confidence reposed in them (John 10:12-13).'"
In the First Century, it seems, shepherds -- specifically, hireling shepherds -- had a rather unsavory reputation. Jeremias cites Rabbinic sources to the effect that "most of the time they were dishonest and thieving; they led their herds onto other people's land and pilfered the produce of the land." Because they were often months at a time without supervision, they were often accused of stealing some of the increase of the flock. Consequently, the pious were warned not to buy wool, milk, or kids from shepherds on the assumption that it was stolen property. Shepherds were not allowed to fulfill a judicial office or be admitted in court as witnesses. A midrash on Psalm 23:2 reads, "There is no more disreputable occupation than that of a shepherd." Philo, a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher of Alexandria (25 BC - 45 AD), wrote about looking after sheep and goats, "Such pursuits are held mean and inglorious."
In contrast to rabbinical contempt for shepherds, however, Jesus distinguishes between the good shepherd and the hireling (John 10:11-13). He tells a parable of the shepherd leaving ninety-nine sheep in the fold while searching the hills to find the missing one (Luke 15:3-7). Perhaps this is because Jesus, who has fellowship with the despised and sinners, knows and appreciates them as people. There is no suggestion that the shepherds to whom the angels appeared were not devout men, though they were from a despised class.
Christ the Good Shepherd Church,
Spring, TX
Dominic Crossan compares the introduction of shepherds into Luke's infancy narrative with the introduction of the Magi (magicians) in Matthew. Luke passes no unkind judgment on the shepherds visited by the angels, as if to say, "Who knows? These guys are as pious as anyone else. Look at the ones to whom this first good news is revealed." In both Matthew and Luke, of course, the surprises aren't over, and the gospel comes to people in all walks of life, and to many who were thought to be unworthy. In Luke and in Matthew, tax collectors and foreigners and women are entrusted with the gospel message. The motif of offering this "new covenant" to those who are outsiders to the keepers of the first covenant runs through the Pauline letters and through the Christian scriptures. To us who are the hundredth generation of beneficiaries, it doesn't seem like such a wonder or scandal. To the first hearers, it must have been astonishing. Crossan writes, "Shepherds are not the nice little guys we often think they were. Shepherds in the ancient world were tough guys who protected their sheep from wolves and thieves. They had weapons; they could take care of themselves. Shepherds were considered dangerous outsiders, and they knew whether the system was just or unjust. So then the angel comes to them and announces that the birth of the Messiah, the just king expected by Israel, and he gives Jesus some fancy titles—Lord, savior, and bringer of peace. Those titles belong to Caesar Augustus, the bringer of peace being the core title upon which the others depended." The shepherds, unallied with the temple economy and, in fact, barred from it, are called to make the first judgment about who the real "savior" is: the emperor in Rome, or a baby sleeping in a feeding trough. They make their judgment, and the story begins.

God-as-shepherd and Messiah-as-shepherd texts might just have their origins in either or both of those efforts, then. Maybe the instinct of the gospel was to rehab the image of all outsiders, tax collectors, prostitutes, non-Jews, so that the Way of Christ might be known as a place of equality where all have equal standing. Or maybe it grew out of the instinct to subvert the idea that God was just Caesar in an invisible Rome, waging cosmic war with Octavian and Tiberius, Hadrian, Zeus, and Mars. In any case, it's good news, a theological win-win. God is among us as one who serves, maybe a "tough guy," but one whose wits and creative love are put to the service of the safety of the flock. When necessary, the shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. Meanwhile, it's good to know, for us outsiders, killers, untrustworthy stewards, whores, and compromisers, that we're good enough to be told there's good news in the village. "Look where the animals are eating," the choir is singing. Then, something about God being made glorious in heaven by peace among the good people of earth, even us smelly shepherds.