The good shepherd lays down life for the sheep given into their care. They do more than place their life in danger; they choose final sacrifice. That’s what makes the shepherd good. Jesus says that the Father loves him because he lays down his life freely, and he lays it down for the sake of the sheep he is gathering up into one flock—that know him with the same perfect comfort that is between Father and Son.
Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.” I once heard a preacher say that answering the question that Jesus asks pointedly in three of our Gospels— “who do you say that I am”— leads inescapably to another question: “who does Jesus say that you are?” Well, Jesus seems to say that we’re gathered and incredibly beloved sheep. Sheep who listen and follow his voice. And since Jesus says, again and again, that his way of life and death should become our way of life and death, the Good Shepherd, seems to be calling us to see that being his sheep means being good shepherds too.
So, you’re a shepherd in ancient Palestine. You don’t own sheep. You hang out with somebody else’s sheep. You keep them together; you keep them moving over good grass and watch out for hurt ones and sick ones; you face whatever threatens them in the middle of nowhere with a stick.
We get swept up in this metaphor because it speaks of God’s selfless, self-emptying, love. And we get swept up into the metaphor because we know we’re the sheep here. Saving us at the cost of everything seems awesome because of how we value what’s saved. We have dignity, worth. We matter. Actual sheep matter less.
I’ve known and liked sheep. But if its ever down to me or a sheep….
So here’s the crux of this metaphor about shepherding: Allowing yourself—precious and remarkable you—to be killed for the sake of something like a sheep. Deciding they are worth your life. And who here is going to watch the bandits or the wolves come down the hill, and think, “this seems like a good trade.” But if we’re imagining ourselves into the parable, that’s what happens. And there you are dead in the valley. The sheep don’t have any capacity for gratefulness; they’re munching grass around you like you’re a weird rock. Those who find you will not think this was noble. They will figure you tripped and something inexplicable happened. No one in your family can write, so your people will remember until they don’t; nobody is going to carve a stone that says, “died for sheep.” There’s a deeply uncomfortable, almost tragic, smallness to that right?
But that’s what the good shepherd does. What the good shepherd does smashes against our instinct to weigh everything against ourselves; the constant evaluation we’re in the midst of: is this person, this place, this thing worth me, a piece of me, all of me.
Jesus doesn’t choose the sheep he cares for. They belong to him because the sheep have been given to him. And he lives out the demands of love for them because it is the command of the Father who sent him into the world, out of love for the world.
What are we given to be shepherds of?
Articles appeared this last week that described the data and conclusions of a just completed survey of the Great Barrier Reef—those multitudinous galaxies of coral that have arced the northwest coast of Australia since a time when humans were wandering, gathering, bands; before agriculture; before bread; fifteen thousand years before the faintest trace that humans imagined cities or kings.
In the summer of 2016, water warmer than ever possible since this great reef began briefly smothered its northern reach. The same phenomenon developed last summer in a different stretch. The effects were instantly recognized as catastrophic, but what’s clear now is that half the living coral along its 1,400 miles starved or died in the heat. The reef in those places now is an archipelago of bones: what the reef has left behind, as some new, radically different and radically less diverse system emerges.
These smothering periods of warm water began in the late 1990s, and marine scientists expected that the sensitive corals would suffer as Coral Sea and earth’s oceans warmed and their circulation altered. But there’s shock nonetheless that in the space of two summers this much of the reef, and the vast web of life it has nourished, has collapsed. The expectation has been that if dramatic and immediate transformation of the way humankind pollutes the atmosphere arrests that warming of our planet below an increase 2 degrees Celsius, the reef would survive in some form. That’s not what is happening.
That isn’t happening because so many remarkable ways of human flourishing are bound up with the burning of fossil fuels. The human experience has been transformed, and continues to be transformed, by an outwardly racing horizon of knowledge, mobility, sustenance. Staggering newness and possibility. It goes on. But our way of being in this world is absolutely dependent on pollution on a vast scale. And we are being overtaken by the costs.
The reef is being destroyed—this planet is being devastated within the space of human generations—because God set us in the midst of creation to be its caretakers but we have been thieves, and we have been bandits, and sometimes we have behaved like hired hands, but we have refused to be creation’s shepherd. Would you lay down your life to redeem a billion—a billion—dead corals? God forgive us that in unison we would say no in our hearts.
And thank God for so loving the world. The scripture does not say that God so loved humankind. God so loved the world: the whole creation that has its breath and tide from God. And we should consider the possibility that the God who set us in a garden has not willed our salvation as an end in itself, but for the sake of the whole groaning creation. Consider that we are being made fit creatures to dwell as a part of this. Made fit to live as God’s image-bearing creatures in the world—to be God’s shepherding creatures, as Christ has shepherded us. And that vocation no more diminishes us than the Good Shepherd, who laid down life for his sheep, is diminished by his sacrifice. That obedience to love is Christ’s glory. And the only glory of humankind is to reflect that glory in our capacity to take up our place in the caring, loving labor of God for the world.