God says WOE to the bad shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! I wonder if you’ve also wanted to shout that at George Osborne this last week or two. And at Jeremy Hunt, as he shepherds the NHS. And at the leaders of Islamic State. Woe to the bad shepherds- how could you possibly lead people like that?!
It feels like there are lots of bad shepherds around, and it could be easy to despair. But this morning’s readings invite us to hope rather than despair. Our Jewish-Christian scriptures are full of stories about bad shepherds who neglect and oppress people, and time and again they are stories of hope, because time and again God sees people oppressed and suffering, and God sends a good shepherd to save the day.
God says, I will raise up good shepherds for my people, and they won’t fear anymore, or be dismayed, nor shall any go missing. And in the gospels, that’s exactly what Jesus the shepherd says, in Mark and in Matthew. He saw God’s people and they were scared and dismayed and lost, like sheep without a shepherd. And so he set about shepherding them.
And we can learn a lot about Jesus the shepherd, by thinking about another great shepherd of God’s sheep, Moses. Both Moses and Jesus were born Hebrews while their people were suffering under a cruel leader. Both were the objects of infanticide in their early years. Both gathered and led the 12 tribes of God’s people. Both commanded the sea. Both went up a mountain, both had faces that shone with God’s glory, both offered God’s law to people from the mountainside.
Jesus was a good shepherd in the mould of Moses, who led God’s people to freedom from slavery under the bad shepherd Pharaoh; Jesus likewise offers freedom from slavery under the bad shepherds of our day. That slavery might take various forms- loneliness, illness, financial difficulties, broken-heartedness, poverty and debt, consumer culture- all sorts of things can keep us away from fullness of life.
For Moses the shepherd, saving God’s people included feeding them with miraculous bread from heaven. And same goes for Jesus the shepherd! He fed 5000 and 4000 on a hillside, and he gave his own body as ‘bread’ from heaven- as we remember in our Passover meal the Eucharist. But as we share this meal that celebrates our own freedom, as we eat this bread from heaven the body of Christ, something funny happens and we get turned into the body of Christ.
Picture that wonderful beach scene at the end of John’s gospel, where Jesus heals Peter the lost sheep, and commissions him to be a shepherd and tend Jesus’ flock. Jesus offers us the same- healing, and commissioning to join him leading his people into freedom from slavery under bad shepherds.
So this morning, as we share this bread and become Christ’s body, I have a few challenges for us…
– We are very independent sheep in the Western world!
Are we ready to hear when Jesus the good shepherd calls, and ready to follow where he leads? Whether he is leading us into togetherness as a team, whether he is leading us out onto the streets of Headingley and Hyde Park- are we ready to follow where he leads, even if it’s to somewhere very uncomfortable?
– Jesus looks at his lost sheep and has compassion on them.
Isn’t that a contrast with our shepherds- be they government or media- who look at people suffering poverty and debt, bad health, dementia etc, and seem to have nothing but cynicism and contempt.
Jesus the good shepherd wept over Jerusalem, he had compassion on God’s lost sheep, and he gave his life for love of his sheep.
How about us? As we consider the lost and hurting sheep of our world, are we filled with cynicism and contempt, or are we filled with compassion?
– Jesus knows his sheep by name.
Isn’t that a contrast with our nation’s shepherds, who classify us by National Insurance number, passport number, account number, membership number, employee number.
We’re forever lamenting that the government are more interested in systems and programmes than in real people and their real problems.
Jesus the good shepherd was interested in people because they were beloved children of God. He stopped crowds to talk to one person, heal one person, get one person down from a tree. He constantly asked people whether they’d like his help, and what kind of help they’d like.
How about us? Do we value people for who they are? Do we get to know the lost sheep that demand our attention and time and money? One of the best ways to test is, do we find out and remember their names?
Take a moment to think: who are the lost sheep that need your compassion this week? Who will you be offering your life to this week- your time, your money, your energy?? … Let’s pray for them and for ourselves:
O God, open our eyes that we may see the needs of others;
open our ears that we may hear their cries;
open our hearts that they need not be without compassion.
Let us not be afraid to defend the weak because of the anger of the strong;
nor afraid to defend the poor because of the anger of the rich.
Show us where love and hope and faith are needed,
and use us to bring them to these places. Amen. (– Alan Paton)