We’ve all heard the criticism of sheep. They’re dumb. They’ll follow the first sheep who moves. They smell bad. It’s true! Actual wool from an actual sheep – before it’s sheared, cleaned, combed, spun, and dyed into yarn – stinks and, you’ll get lanolin all over your hands, too.
So why are we so fond of the image of Christ the shepherd? Of all the metaphors that Jesus used, all the analogies, all the stories and images that he chose so that they would resonate with his listeners – why this one? Why, just to pick one at random, do we not have posters and stained-glass windows of Jesus, oh, I don’t know, turning over tables in the Temple, or Jesus as the Bread of Life, or even Jesus turning the water into wine? Why the enduring image of Jesus in the white robe and red tunic holding a lamb in his arms? Why is this my favorite Nativity-scene figure?
Jesus of Nazareth, the Teacher, the itinerant rabbi, who was also Jesus the Christ, the Son of God the Creator of the Universe, taught by using imagery from the world in which he and his students lived. He did not teach them by sending them GIFs. He did not teach them by saying, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like the latest Marvel movie.” He did not, as far as we know, say, “I am the Internet of Life.” No, wait, that doesn’t sound right, does it?
It doesn’t sound right – yet I suspect that if we had Jesus the Teacher among us today, he would use the methods of travel and communication of our time. Instead of walking everywhere, he might call an Uber or Lyft. Instead of calling out to the brothers fishing, he might send them a text. Follow me on Twitter, he might say. Like me on Facebook.
So the question remains: Why does the image of Jesus the Shepherd resonate with us so deeply, why is it so enduring? Why does this image above all others transcend culture and centuries and become the one we embrace more than all the others?
It actually might come down to the criticisms that we have all heard about sheep. Maybe this image endures so firmly because it’s so very true about our attempts to follow Jesus.
All we like sheep, as Georg F. Handel wrote in “The Messiah,” have gone astray, every one to his own way.
I suspect this image so endures, so resonates, for another reason: It brings us more comfort and more healing and more hope than possibly any other ideas we have about Jesus – both Jesus the Teacher, and Jesus who is God.
If, in fact, the Lord is my Shepherd, that means that he has earned the right to claim ownership of me. But it’s not ownership in a financial sense, not really, because for this Shepherd it’s not about money.
For this Shepherd, he owns the sheep both because He, as God the Creator of the Universe, has spoken each single lamb into existence, and named each one – and also because as Jesus the Son of God, he bears the immense privilege of stewardship for the flock: he is invested in them. His whole being is flooded with love and care and concern and hope for their well-being and their futures.
This Shepherd, this Good Shepherd, is the Christ the Cornerstone. He is the one who willingly lays down his life for his sheep, all the flock and any one single lamb or ewe or ram, because he is overflowing with love. He is the one to lead us to the greenest pastures, the most restful waters, and even through the darkest scariest valleys. This Shepherd is the one whose voice we hear, and listen to. This Shepherd is the one we are glad to obey. Amen.