“I am the good shepherd,” Jesus said to them. “The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.” Later, after he was crucified, the disciples recalled his words and realized that he was the good shepherd, the one who loved and cared for the sheep, even at the cost of his own life.
Jesus is the good shepherd. The Greek word kalos, which is translated here as “good,” means good in the ideal sense, as in Plato’s philosophy. Plato put forth the idea, for example, that for every real chair, there was an ideal of “chair-ness” for which particular chairs were but replicas. The kalos chair is the ideal prototype of a chair.
Likewise, Jesus is the ideal shepherd, or the model shepherd.
This Eastertide, let us reflect on Jesus, the model shepherd, who did not keep his own life either from danger or from his neighbor. And let us contrast us with a contemporary emphasis on keeping our lives.
We want not only to keep our lives, but to keep our lives from our neighbor. How much of our politics these days is dominated by the fear of our neighbor? Fear of our borders that need a wall. Fear of the immigrant who is different and dangerous. Fear of those who don’t look like us. Fear of crime. Fear that our neighbor might be getting something at our expense. If we would keep our life, we imagine, then we must keep it from danger and from our neighbor.
But that is not Jesus’s way. The love of God doesn’t keep itself at arm’s length from our neighbor. Jesus says the good shepherd isn’t like the hired hand.
And what is the hired hand like? The hired hand is more like a rent-a-cop. There’s a great scene in the movie Batman Returns where Cat Woman is busting up villainous Schreck’s department store when two security guards approach her. She brandishes her whip and growls at them, and they quickly withdraw, saying, “Hey, lady, we only get minimum wage here.” They are just hired hands.
Jesus says that the hired hand runs away at the first sign of danger and leaves the sheep to the wolves.
Jesus’s description of the good shepherd would’ve set off bells with his hearers. Recall that both Moses and David were shepherds, and the kings of Israel were often called “shepherds of the people.”
And the Prophet Ezekiel had prophesied against false and wicked shepherds. So, Jesus’ hearers, who for decades had had assorted Herods as their kings, and corrupt Sadducees running the temple, didn’t have to look very far for false shepherds.
And this just isn’t an ancient history, is it? Every age knows its crooked politicians who look out for themselves, its slick pastors in pursuit of a paycheck, and its cops not protecting the people they are supposed to serve. We know as well as they did the difference between the good shepherd and the hired hand.
The hired hand works under a contract. But the good shepherd has a relationship, a relationship rooted in the intimate loving relationship that Jesus has with the Father. As Jesus says, “I know my own, and my own know me. Just as the father knows me and I know the father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.”
When I was in the second grade a boy in my Sunday school class named Kim was killed when he overshot the mark on his sled, went into the road, and was hit by a car. Nobody I knew had ever died before and his death left quite an impression on me. I remember my mother and father sitting me down and telling me the sad news.
Sometime later that year Kim’s family donated a stained-glass window to our little church in his memory. In reds and blues it had a picture of a shepherd boy and a little lamb looking up at him. There seemed a tender bond between the boy and the lamb, and I imagined that the shepherd would protect the lamb from harm, and go in search of it when it became lost. It was comforting for me to think that Kim was somehow safe in God’s protection like the lamb was with the shepherd.
I saw that window every Sunday for the rest of my growing-up years until I moved away to go to college. Two weeks later my mother died. I was 18. She was 53. I came home for her funeral, which was at that church, and I sat near Kim’s window of the shepherd boy and the lamb.
I felt lost then and at various other times in my life, and the image of that shepherd has always comforted me. Here is One who loves us, looks out for us, not passively, but always actively seeking us out when we are in need.
That seeking out is what makes Jesus the good shepherd. He knows his sheep and he loves them. He will lay down his life for them.
The willing act of self-giving by Jesus at his crucifixion is transformed by God into something new. The resurrection is God’s active power, power then to raise Jesus, power now available to us all in the new life he offers.
The world doesn’t understand this different kind of power, the power that doesn’t hold onto safety and privilege, but reaches out in love.
George Floyd’s murder would have gone unpunished except for the courage and risk of the strangers that stopped to record his murder on their phones. They didn’t know him. But they knew what they saw was wrong. They recognized his humanity. They risked running afoul of the powers that be to help a stranger.
That is what life with Jesus is like. The paradox of the heart of the gospel is the Jesus laid down his life, so that we might have life like his. He said, “I came that you might have life and have it abundantly.”
The life we are born with isn’t abundant life. Perhaps that’s why it never seems like it’s enough. The consumer society is based on life which is never satisfied, life with an endless list of wants and needs. What a contrast this is to the life with God as portrayed on the 23rd Psalm, “the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, “or better, “therefore I lack nothing.
In Tennessee Williams’ play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Big Daddy Pollitt, dying of cancer, sees our grasping world quite clearly. He said, “The human animal is a beast that dies and if he’s got money he buys and buys and buys and I think the reason he buys everything he can buy is that in the back of his mind he has the crazy hope that one of his purchases will be life everlasting! – which it can never be…”
He’s right; you can’t buy life-everlasting. Jesus shows us that real life is not about getting and keeping.
Abundant life is life given, life shared, life not kept from the neighbor. Such life is not about walls, but about bridges. Such life is risky, dangerous, joyful, wonderful, and real.
It is new life, life lived under the shadow of the cross. It is Easter life. It is the life of the flock that calls Jesus “shepherd.” And such life lacks for nothing. Amen.
(I preached this sermon at the virtual service of The United Congregational Church of Little Compton, RI, on April 25, 2021. To see the YouTube video of the service go here. The photo is by Patrick Schneider on Lash.)