Fourth Sunday of Easter, rcl yr b, 2021
ACTS 4:5-12; PSALM 23; 1 JOHN 3:16-24; JOHN 10:11-18
The Lord is my shepherd
“Metaphorical sheep appear as hapless dolts in many scriptural references.” Not my words! This is what Ellen Charry has to say as she interprets Psalm 23. She goes on to say “They are stupid, helpless animals and the most easily domesticated for food, especially since they are relatively small and easily managed.” In scripture, they are unable to sense danger to protect themselves or care for themselves. And they make really good meals for predatory animals. Sheep need someone to guide them, and we hear that lament all throughout the Bible: “like sheep without a shepherd” is shorthand for how woeful it is to be without guidance.
There’s a short video that’s been making the rounds of social media this week that illustrates this well. It’s of a sheep stuck head first in a ditch, unable to wriggle out, but who gets pulled out by someone (with no small amount of resistance from the the sheep itself). Once removed from the narrow ditch the sheep comically and happily bounds off, jumping in the air. Only to land head first, a few feet away, in the same ditch, stuck in the same helpless position it was in just seconds earlier.
Sheep need a shepherd.
And that’s the intention of these images in scripture—to instil a sense in us the sense that we need to be led, cared for, and often helped.
And before we begin to imagine that the intention behind using such images of helplessness and need for guidance is to consolidate the influence of so-called shepherds—scripture references to shepherds are not particularly kind or generous.
Jeremiah and Ezekiel rail against the shepherds, who though they are duly appointed, are actually lazy and don’t take their responsibilities seriously. Zechariah writes of shepherds abandoning the ones they were meant to care for. So the sadness of that refrain, about sheep without a shepherd, is not simply to speak of the helplessness of the sheep, but of the wickedness of the many human leaders who leave their flocks, the ones they are to care for, subject to predators.
So when Jesus rehabilitates Peter at the end of John’s Gospel, he doesn’t ask Peter to just be a shepherd—but to be a good one. To feed the lambs, and to tend the sheep, and to feed the sheep.
And this is a part of the scriptural story—that God does appoint human shepherds to care for the sheep. Not that all are up to the task. Some are lazy, some are negligent. But that there are people in place to care for God’s people.
Our Psalm for today, Psalm 23, and the Gospel reading, from John 10, though, aren’t about the human shepherds appointed to care for others— they are about God as the good shepherd in the Psalm, and Jesus the good shepherd in John.
But these other passages would have been in the minds of the hearers, as they are in ours. To say “The Lord is my Shepherd” brings to mind the good shepherds who do not abandon their flock; and similarly, to imagine Jesus as a shepherd is to imagine him as one who cares for us.
“The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.”
This is unlike Jesus, the good shepherd: “I know my own and my own know me,” says Jesus, “just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.” Christ, and Christ crucified, is the ultimate act of care for us, here in John—the saving act of God, accomplished so that those who have been given to him would have life.
As Augustine, and other ancient Christians read Psalm 23—after reading John 10—he assumes that the shepherd of Psalm 23 is Jesus. And there’s something moving about this, because it turns the words of John 10—the words of Jesus, in which he calls himself the good shepherd, the one who lays down his life for the sheep, into our words. It makes these words not just about some historical figure, but it describes our own relationship with Jesus, the crucified one. This good shepherd is my shepherd. I shall not be in want. He leads me beside still waters. He revives my soul, and guides me. You, the good shepherd, are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
Ellen Charry points out something about those last verses that are very interesting. The rod was a long stick, or pole, that was used to poke, or tap the sheep, and to get them to move in a certain direction, or to get the sheep to lie down. It was a tool used to help the sheep stay when they needed to stay, or to remain on the right path if they needed to stay on the right path.
The verb used to say “to make lie down” his disciplinary connotations—there is some sense that the sheep don’t just need to be prodded, but to be corrected. And so the staff is both a means of comfort and a means of discipline and correction. It’s an association that might not make sense to us—many of us, in our time, would see comfort and encouragement, and discipline and correction, as being contrary to one another.
But not the Psalmist, nor for ancient Jewish and Christian commentators either. Augustine puts it this way, in the form of address to God: “Your discipline is like a rod used on a flock of sheep, and like a staff used to support older children as they grow from sensual to spiritual life. They have done me no harm; rather they have encouraged me, because you are mindful of me.” As Charry puts it, “One does not correct those about whom one does not care.”
Psalm 23 follows Psalm 22—the words of which were spoken by Jesus from the cross. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? * and are so far from my cry and from the words of my distress? O my God, I cry in the daytime, but you do not answer; * by night as well, but I find no rest. They aren’t just words of distress and of abandonment; they are words that speak to real human tormentors: “All who see me laugh me to scorn; * …Packs of dogs close me in, and gangs of evildoers circle around me; * they pierce my hands and my feet; … They stare and gloat over me.”
And we get just a glimpse of that kind of desolation, even here, in Psalm 23, whose subject is the Lord who cares, whose discipline is so loving and gentle that it’s more like encouragement and love. This Lord, who is our shepherd, “spread[s] a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me.”
The psalms are nothing if not honest about the human condition, and how we so often treat one another. Even a psalm like Psalm 23, so concerned as it is with gentleness, guidance, love and care.
And that’s where the Psalm ends, and the last words I would have for today: yes, life is troubling; yes, trauma is real; and yes, sometimes there are predators out there, when there should have been good shepherds to care for us. But there is no trauma, and no predation, no matter how honest we are about it (and honest about it we certainly should be), there is no trauma, and no predation that is not gathered up into Christ and his life, the Good Shepherd, the one who lays down his life for the sheep.
God in Christ speaks those words with us, for us, and on our behalf, sharing in the depths of the human condition, which is so often one of suffering and distress.
We would be wise to not move too quickly to gloss over this reality by way of a kind of toxic optimism. But we would still need to say, that God in Christ does not leave us there. Not this good shepherd, who leads us through this life of death and torment: our destination, in him, is not torment, but because this is the good shepherd, we are led into his house and into his care: “Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, * and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”
The Revd Dr Preston DS Parsons