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Friday, April 24, 2015

Jesus (and the Christian) as God's "good shepherd" (B4E)

Christ the Good Shepherd, from the
catacombs of St. Domatilla.
The fourth Sunday of Easter in every cycle visits the metaphor of Christ the shepherd. Shepherding is an ancient metaphor, antedating Jesus, for leadership in the community of Israel. Prophetic literature often rails against the “shepherds of Israel” who mislead God’s flock, the God about whom Psalm 23 proclaims, “The LORD is my shepherd; I lack nothing.” Leadership among the people of God, by king, priest, or prophet, is supposed to mirror the qualities of the Holy One of Israel from whom authority flows. As Psalm 72, a psalm probably used in the coronation liturgy of Judean kings, puts it:

O God, give your judgment to the king;
your justice to the son of kings;
that he may govern your people with justice,
your oppressed with right judgment,

That the mountains may yield their bounty for the people,
and the hills great abundance,

That he may defend the oppressed among the people,
save the poor and crush the oppressor...

For he rescues the poor when they cry out,
the oppressed who have no one to help.

He shows pity to the needy and the poor
and saves the lives of the poor.

From extortion and violence he frees them,
for precious is their blood in his sight.

The expectation is that the leaders will act, in God’s place, as just arbiters, impartial, loving freedom and peace. This, of course, is not the way of the world, and kings, prophets, and priests are often condemned as false shepherds who lead the people to their ruin.

But why is Christ the good shepherd? For the author of John, where there are numerous references in chapter 10 to the work of shepherding the God’s flock. How is Jesus uniquely good as shepherd? By his intimacy with his flock, an intimacy that is analogous to his intimacy with Abba (10:14-15). His intimacy with them extends to his death in their defense. It seems important to me that he suggests not that he will kill in their defense, but that he lays down his life for them. He acts as God’s surrogate, then, coming among us with love, and unlike the false shepherds condemned by the prophets, ruling as God rules, through solidarity and service. This clarity or transparency of the Good Shepherd is critical: his way of being with the sheep is an image of the invisible God.

So Peter says, “there is no other name given to the human race by which we are saved.” All other metaphors and avatars are empty. It seems to me that this is a critical reflection on the meaning and significance of Christ, one which differentiates true Christianity from other religions. God is not revealed by manipulative despotism, no matter how benign; not by holy wars fought for “just” or even sacred purposes. God’s way is revealed by the shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. God is love. God is kenosis. As we make other choices about how to live in this world, we need at least, then, to be honest about our efforts being divorced from the way. Our violence and strategies of accumulation, however well-intended, are not God’s way. Throughout our political and economic lives, we need to cling to the prayer of supplicants throughout the Christian scripture: Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison. Is it any wonder that this litany begins our liturgical prayer nearly every Sunday? As St. John’s first letter reminded us last Sunday, whoever does not says he knows God without living in divine love, self-emptying love, or agape, is a liar. Saved from the despair of our situation by grace; we’re sinners, and the liturgy at her eternal heart knows it, and won’t let us forget that.
There is no salvation through anyone else,

nor is there any other name under heaven

given to the human race by which we are to be saved.