The Rev. Matthew D. Larsen
Christ Episcopal Church
New Haven, Connecticut
4th Sunday of Easter
Today is Good Shepherd Sunday. The readings are among the most well known in the Bible. Everybody knows this stuff, even people who have never darkened the door of a church. Centuries of pious dust have collected around these passages. Their sparkle has been grown dim and they now feel more at home on a Precious Moments angel figurine or a Hallmark card.
Today I’d like to try to blow some of the dust off and encounter them afresh. Psalm 23 and John 10 both use sheep herding as a metaphor. Let’s explore that metaphor. Social perceptions of rustic life have always evolved. Our post-industrial world and our idealization of stories like this may lead us think about shepherding as an idyllic, peaceful, and noble profession. But that was not necessarily the case in the ancient world. While some praised rustic life, sheep were dumb creatures and shepherds were often thought of as country bumpkins, who were not wildly intelligent, not terribly important, the kind of morally questionable people who might be known to frequent a bar or even a brothel. Hard working people doing physical labor, not necessarily the sharpest tools in the shed, not impious but not necessarily the most morally rigorous either. So why does Scripture deploy this metaphor? I don’t know. But it does.
What I thought interesting this week was that Psalm 23 speaks from the perspective of the sheep and John 10 from the perspective of the shepherd. In Psalm 23, we hear the voice of the sheep. As we chant it, we ventriloquize ourselves as sheep. Part of the problem is the well-known language of the King James Version. It’s not that the King James is a bad translation. It’s just that few speak Shakespearian English anymore, although this congregation probably has a comparatively higher fluency than most.
Let me walk us through each line and offer a defamiliarized translation of the Hebrew:
The Lord is my shepherd: We are a herd of smelly sheep. But we don’t have some normal shepherd, YHWH is our shepherd. The Lord is the one who feeds me, who pastures me, who guides me.
I shall not want: the idea is that as the Lord shepherds me, there is nothing that I might need that I don’t have. I lack nothing necessary for life as a sheep.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters: This one needs some explanation. The verbal stems of the Hebrew verbs clarify that it’s not just that our shepherd, the Lord, says to us sheep, pointing over yonder, “Hey gang, there’s a killer field with a stream in it.” No, there is a compelling element to it. The Lord makes us lay down in the green grass. The Lord leads us to calm, clear water and then causes us to rest there. Implied is that we don’t always know how to rest and the Lord compels us to rest.
He restoreth my soul: Our shepherd, the Lord, repairs our little sheep nephesh. Nephesh is the Hebrew word for soul, living being, life, self, person, desire, appetite, emotion, and passion. The idea is that our shepherd sees all the sheep’s bumps and bruises and the Lord lovingly attends to them.
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake: Let’s not to import medieval and modern notions of righteousness. The idea is just that the Lord shepherds us sheep in the right ways to go.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me: Imagine you are a sheep and you have to walk not along a ridge, but through a valley, not during the day, but in the deep darkness of night. That’s about the worst scenario for a sheep, right? Are there wolves around? No way to tell. But the shepherd is there. He nudges you and pushes you in the right way with the same club that he uses to count or muster the sheep. It comforts you to know the shepherd is there.
So that’s the sheep perspective. But what about the shepherd’s perspective? John 10 provides us with that. Jesus says that he is a good shepherd. He contrasts his good shepherd-ness with some kind of a day-laborer. The kind of person you might hire, if you, the shepherd, had to go into town for the day.
But he that is an hireling, and not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth: and the wolf catcheth them, and scattereth the sheep. The hireling fleeth, because he is an hireling, and careth not for the sheep. I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine.
The point of the contrast is to show the personal investment of each. The day-laborer’s investment is the money due at the end of the day, a day’s wage. The investment of a good shepherd is far more: it’s the shepherd’s own life. His life is yoked with the lives of his sheep. If he dies, they die. If he lives, they live.
In baptism, our life is connected with the Good Shepherd. His death is our death. His resurrected life is our life. He gave his life on Good Friday, and each time we come to the table he continues to give his life. So come. Come as sheep. Come to the good shepherd. Come to green pasture and calm waters. The shepherd compels us to come find refreshment. Jesus says to us, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eats of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” And that’s why we call him “good.”