Some years ago I made a long retreat at St Beuno’s in Wales, that lovely Jesuit house where Gerard Manley Hopkins lived, and wrote the Wreck of the Deutschland. Each afternoon I would go out for a walk up and down the hills, enjoying that wonderful countryside, as Hopkins had done:
“Lovely the woods, waters, meadows, combes, vales
All the air things wear that build this world of Wales.”
And I got to know Welsh sheep. They were everywhere. They were big and dirty, their wool matted with mud and other less pleasant things. They were not like those sparkling white sheep that one usually sees in pictures of Jesus the Good Shepherd. It’s nice to think of Jesus as a shepherd. It is not so nice to think of ourselves as sheep! Not only are sheep dirty – it’s not for nothing that Pope Francis said priestly shepherds should have the smell of the sheep about their person! They are also not very bright. They tend to fall into ditches, get stuck in the mud, get tangled up in barbed wire fences. It’s not a very flattering picture of us, but I fear it may be a true one. Maybe today we should reflect a bit on our own lives and consider how much like sheep we are. Grubby, not very bright and inclined to get into messes. It is extraordinary what sort of people God calls to monastic and priestly life. Perhaps he has no choice because that is all there is. But enough of us. What about the Shepherd.?
When we think of the shepherd we think of that other story of the shepherd who went off after a single lost sheep and brought it home. That story has given rise to many thousands of beautiful sermons full of love, care and gentleness. I wonder if that is what it is really about. I once heard a talk from the New Testament scholar Kenneth Bailey, who grew up in the Middle East, spoke Arabic and knew shepherds. He reminded us that shepherds were businessmen. Their flocks of sheep were their bank, or the bank of those they worked for. If you lose a sheep, you lose money. You go after a lost sheep to get your money back. It’s as basic as that. Jesus the Good Shepherd is as basic as that.
It reminds me of a cousin of mine who raises cattle in Zimbabwe. There was a big problem in his area with stock theft. Every farmer was losing cattle to thieves. My cousin never lost a single animal because right at the beginning he took to giving each of his three herdsmen a calf as a Christmas bonus so they could build up their own herds. “But” he said, “If ever I lose a cow I will come and take one of yours.” They made sure he never did, out of concern for their own. The moral of the story is that love costs money. God loved us, and he paid for that love by suffering on the Cross.
That gives a different take on Jesus as the good shepherd. He is jealous of his sheep. Like a businessman or a miser, he will not let his money get lost. In the Old Testament we are often told that God is a jealous God. Jealousy is supposed to be bad, but in God it is good. It shows that God really loves us with passion. He will not let the devil capture us and take us away. His love is not a pale, gentle benevolence that is easily blown away by the breeze. It is strong, violent, passionate love. It is the kind of love you meet in the Song of Songs: “I found him whom my soul loves; I held him and would not let him go.” God was so determined not to let go of these lost sheep on earth that he became one of them; he suffered death on the Cross and pursued his sheep down to hell. It can be a bit frightening to discover love like that, but it is also good to know that that is how we are loved: a love that pursues us through the darkness of our lives and will not let us go.
That leaves me with one question: why did the compilers of our lectionary give us this gospel of Jesus the Good Shepherd to read during Eastertide? To read it in Lent would make good sense – the Good Shepherd who is willing to lay down his life for his sheep. What does it tell us of the risen Christ? Well, I do not know what the compilers intended, but I have an idea of my own. It goes back to a number of years ago when I was visiting Romania. We were in a small village in Transylvania up against the Carpathians when a couple of shepherds brought their flock of sheep through the village. These shepherds bore no resemblance at all to that willowy, pre-Raphaelite picture of Jesus the Good Shepherd which you see so often in children’s bible books. They were big, tough, bearded men. They exuded energy and strength as they walked fast through the village. They were, in fact, a bit scary. They lived on the mountain side with their sheep in rain and snow, in heat and drought. They defended the sheep against bears, wolves and thieves. They were real men. Is that what the risen Jesus is – the most real man, or person who has ever existed?
We have trouble representing the Risen Christ. Sometimes he appears pale and willowy as if he needed to be thin and unsubstantial to slip through doors and walls. Other times he is full of light as if a star has come down to Earth. In Caravaggio’s Emmaus he is meaty, more like a butcher than a God. Christ is not less human for having resumed his Godhead. He is more human. He is the kind of human we will be if we make it through to the Resurrection, not less real but more so.
What are the implications of this? Where is this powerful, human, Risen Christ? Faith tells us he is all around. Is he doing anything? We look at the world today and see a trail of disasters – the pandemic, climate crisis, the destruction of our environment, the wars raging in Africa and the middle East. Some think God has abandoned the world, that he is hanging around to collect the last faithful Christian off this doomed planet before he lets it go its own way to hell. I believe the world is still here, and the human race still here only because this big strong Risen Christ is working to make it so. I believe that we are finally beginning to deal with issues of climate change, inequality, destruction because Christ is dragging us into doing so. The challenge for us in today’s world is to find out what the Risen Christ is already doing and work with him. That is what shows we believe he has risen from the dead.
Fr Nicolas CR