5 min. to read.
It’s the 22nd day of Lent. As a part of my practice this year, I’m reading Brian Zahnd’s Lent devotional, The Unvarnished Jesus..I journal on the scripture he’s selected and his reflection, then I post daily (or near-daily) meditations that emerge from this.
John 10:1-21 is the scripture Today, where Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd.
The good shepherd. This isn’t a very helpful metaphor for many of us Today. At least, not at first. We’re not farmers. Most of us don’t keep livestock. We don’t have any personal experience with sheep. Good Shepherd imagery has very little real-life experience to call on. We’re left with the Sunday school paintings of Jesus overlooking a pasture, snuggling a little lamb. The image is peaceful, calm, a sort of nap-time Jesus.
Zahnd brings a reading that I’ve never seen before, and it’s compelling. He points out that in the Ancient Near East, “shepherd” was a common metaphor used to refer to a king. In Jewish scripture, it was also used as a label for the Messiah. David, the archetypal king, was a shepherd. Both the Psalms and the prophet Micah suggested that the Messiah would be in the mold of David. The Messiah would provide for and protect the people like a shepherd.
The people in Jesus’ audience were used to kings. They knew what to expect. If you had a good king, there’d be safety and peace, but mostly kings took what they wanted for themselves. They also knew a bit about messiahs. Zahnd mentions several who came and went near the time of Jesus. These were religious and political zealots who gathered bands of warriors, even small armies, intent on overthrowing the Roman occupation. These roving bands of armed men would support themselves in the way disenfranchised armed men have historically–robbery and extortion. Supposedly, they were freedom fighters, committed to the good of the nation. Practically? They were violent, and they brought violence in their wake.
Through this whole reading, Jesus makes contrasts between what it means for him to be a shepherd compared to other shepherds the people knew. If everyone understood that this metaphor referred to kings and even messiahs, as Zahnd suggests, these comparisons come to life:
The Good Shepherd knows the sheep, and they know him. Others are just “hired hands” who don’t care for the sheep. The Good Shepherd brings the sheep to good pasture, providing abundant life. Others are only in it to steal, kill, and destroy. They bring death. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, putting himself in danger, even risking death for them. Others run away at the first sign of danger.
Israel knew life under puppet kings, demagogues, political priests jostling for power. They lived under the watchful eye of the Roman legions. They experienced the periodic and unpredictable violence of nationalist zealots who claimed to be the Chosen One who would restore their great nation. They needed something different, a leader who led them in the way of peace.
We seek out shepherds. Whether in the presidential election or in our desire to follow and learn from the best coaches, the culture shapers, the influencers, we want to associate with those strong leaders who can help us get where we want to go. Churches seem to seek out pastors who are good on a stage and able to build a following. Perhaps this is a human thing. We want leaders to help cut the edge of our uncertainty.
Following these people gives them power and prestige. We transfer some of our autonomy and personal responsibility to them. They make the hard choices for us. And if they fail, well… we were just “following the leader.” Trusting a leader saves us an enormous amount of mental energy. Instead of thinking questions through ourselves, we can simply follow. Choosing shepherds seems a pragmatic thing, one more area where the ends seem to justify the means. If a leader can get us where we want to go, does their character matter that much?
But we can’t escape accountability. When we choose a leader or seek out an influencer, that is a moral choice. The character of those leaders will shape the outcome of their leadership. It will shape us as followers. We become more and more like the people we follow. So, follow Jesus. And then when you choose choose human leaders and influencers, think about who they are leading you to become.
Zahnd brings it together with this challenge: “Today, let’s listen for the peaceable voice of our Good Shepherd. We live in a time when there is an increase of demagogues and populist leaders making messiah-like claims–‘Only I can fix it.’ But if it’s a voice that cherishes the memory of colonialism (stealing), or endorses war because God is on our side (killing), or incites hostility toward vilified scapegoats (destruction), you can be sure it’s not a voice that comes from the Good Shepherd, and is not a voice Christians should follow.”
Lent invites us to follow the Good Shepherd and his peaceable way. This way is life.