Sunday, May 15, 2011

The shepherd, an image of the royal and the divine

today's Gospel reading from the RCL is John 10.10




Sermon 5.15.2011 4th of Easter

May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – Amen.

We hear the idea of the shepherd used a couple of times in our scripture readings this morning. St Peter uses it to talk about Jesus, saying For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls. And in our Gospel reading from St John, we hear Jesus talking about himself as being a shepherd … and not just any shepherd, but one that wants his flock to have life, and have it abundantly

Now on the one hand, the use of shepherd imagery in the bible is some thing we're quite used to … it is used a lot, so it doesn't strike us as strange when we hear people talking about God as a shepherd or indeed Jesus himself calling himself the good shepherd … and perhaps it should … because our idea of who a shepherd is and his relationship with his flock is very different to the one that would have been understood by the biblical writers. We might see a shepherd as a low-paid manual worker, but in the ancient world, flocks and herds represented wealth and power … so much so that the imagery of the shepherd became associated with kingship … the king was the shepherd who looked after the flock who was his people … and the image became associated with divinity also … God was seen as the shepherd who cares for and looks after the sheep who are his children …

Again, to the modern mind, the idea of the shepherd being seen as incredibly caring of his sheep might seem strange … after all, the shepherd eats the sheep or sells them off to be slaughtered! But not so in the ancient world … in the biblical times, the sheep was prized for the milk and wool it provided … the idea of raising an animal up for the primary purpose of killing it and eating it would have seemed strange to them … in fact they ate very little meat in the ancient world; it was seen as a luxury item; most of the meat that they did eat was from the ritual slaughter of animals as part of religious ceremonies … so much so, that pious Jews living outside Israel were strict vegetarians, because most of the animal flesh that was available in the meat markets of the ancient world came from the sacrifices that were made in the temples and the Jews wanted nothing to do with meat that came from offerings that had been made to false gods … but avoiding meat wouldn't have been a huge hardship in any case, because as I said meat formed a very minor part of the Mediterranean diet.

Even the Romans, whom historians love to tells us about their having great feasts with all kinds of exotic dishes such as pies made from larks tongues, ate very little meat. What the historians often forget to mention is that the ancient Roman writers whose works act as the sources for our history books are writing about these feasts with a certain disdain – they don't approve of this luxury and high living. The Roman army conquered the world on a diet that was mostly wheat … and the Roman historian Tacitus tells us the soldiers were quite shocked when they met up with the German natives and discovered all the meat that they were eating … they didn't think it was healthy!

But this attitude towards meat was an important reason why the imagery of the shepherd worked as one of kingship and divinity. For these people the shepherd loved his animals and took care of them, they were precious to him … yes they might be killed, but only as a sacrifice to God, and even then that showed just how precious they were … they were giving to God of their very best, something that was precious to them, something that they relied upon to live … something that was a real sacrifice for them to give up …

Understanding all this helps us understand something very important about what Jesus is saying about himself … when he says that he is a shepherd, he is not saying that he is some kind of agricultural worker … but it is a royal claim … and it is more that that … he says that all who have come before him are thieves and bandits … he is saying he is the one and only true king that has occurred in all of human history … and for the Jews the one true king from whom all authority flowed was God himself …

And elsewhere in John's Gospel, this one true shepherd who is God himself tells us that he is the Good shepherd who will lay down his life for his sheep … the shepherd will become the sacrifice, for the sake of his sheep … he will become the sacrificial lamb … as St Peter tells us He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; and by his wounds we have been healed … so that we might have life, and have it abundantly

By his wounds we have been healed. The Good Shepherd who is the King of Kings and God made man has laid down his life for his sheep … for us … because we were going astray … we still are going astray … but the Good Shepherd knows us still … and if we listen, if we really listen, we will know his voice … and we will return to the safety of his fold, the safety that he bought for us at the price of his own blood, and we will have the life that he desired for us and have it abundantly … Amen.

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