The Good Shepherd – The Fourth Sunday of Easter


The Good Shepherd – The Fourth Sunday of Easter

Published: 14th June, 2024

Acts 4:5-12
Psalm 23
John 10:11-18

In the name of the +Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

The shepherd is arguably the dominant biblical image for human leadership and authority in the bible. Just to give you a whistle-stop survey… we might think of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, all of them shepherds, semi-nomadic pastoralists herding their sheep in the land of Canaan. We might think of Moses: having fled from Egypt, he worked as a shepherd in the wilderness until God called him to lead his people out of slavery into the promised land. We might think of David, the shepherd boy called out of obscurity in the hills around Bethlehem to be the shepherd king of Israel. We might think of the great psalm 23 that we have just heard, that identifies the Lord as the ultimate shepherd, the one who can be relied on to guide us along life’s journey. We might think of the prophets Ezekiel and Jeremiah, with their fierce denunciations of the shepherds of Israel who neglect their duties in taking care of their sheep, and with their promises that the Lord Himself will come to be the shepherd of His people. And of course we might think of the teaching of Jesus Himself, whether it be the parable of the lost sheep, or the gospel that we heard this morning in which Jesus declares Himself to be the Good Shepherd.

One of the curious things about John’s gospel is that he doesn’t really do parables. If someone were to ask you about what Jesus taught, I imagine most of you would probably answer either with something from the Sermon on the Mount, or with one of the famous parables: perhaps the parable of the Good Samaritan might be the most popular. Particularly in Matthew and Luke, but also in Mark, Jesus speaks in parables. His teaching is often quite indirect, in some cases pointing people towards a moral truth that usually also has a deeper level of meaning that points towards the nature of Jesus Himself. In John’s gospel, by contrast, Jesus often speaks of Himself in a very direct way. The “I am” sayings in John’s gospel are an obvious example. I am the bread of life, I am the way, the truth and the life, I am the true vine, I am the Good Shepherd. And yet although these are not parables, we do find certain points of connection with the parables that we find in the other gospels, especially in the way that Jesus consistently draws His images and metaphors from the everyday world around Him, from the rural and agricultural life that shaped most people’s lives. Shepherds, vineyards, bread, wine, water.

Our understanding of the idea of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is doubtless shaped by the pastoral ideal in modern thought. As western societies became increasingly urban, and increasingly detached from the often tough and even brutal business of the production of food, we began to look at the countryside in a different light. For Jesus as for the rural poor in every age the countryside is a place of struggle, a place of life and death. There are tares in the field, there are fig trees that bring forth no fruit, there are fisherman who catch no fish, there are sheep and wolves, chickens and foxes, there are bad tenants and harsh masters. Jesus did not live in a world in which the shelves of Waitrose groaned with fat things from the four corners of the earth. Producing and consuming food was a matter of survival. There was no romantic, bucolic idyll about the countryside; this was not a world of suburbanised villages with Jaguars parked on gravel drives. It was rather a place of toil and danger.

And so the biblical idea of a shepherd is altogether a much tougher figure than the shepherd of the modern pastoral imagination. Moses gains himself a wife by driving off the shepherds of Midian when they interfere with Jethro’s daughters at the well. David fights and kills the bears and lions that seek to snatch his father’s sheep. Jesus the Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. The task of the shepherd is a dangerous one. It is a life of hardship and sacrifice.

When we speak of pastoral care we are usually thinking either of the care offered by teachers to children, or of the care exercised by the clergy for their congregations, or perhaps of some particular person in a workplace who deals with the emotional complexities that arise from time to time, or perhaps of counsellors or certain types of psychologists. But actually any manager or leader is going to have to exercise pastoral care to some degree if they do their job well: you cannot manage the work of a human being whilst being indifferent to their emotional, physical and spiritual wellbeing. But pastoral care is usually thought of in terms that might perhaps have something to do with the romantic, bucolic idea of the pastoral. It isn’t usually thought of as fighting off the ravening beasts that stalk vulnerable people in every walk of life. But perhaps it ought to be.

Pastoral care following the biblical model cannot only be a matter of being a soothing and comforting presence, which to be honest is how we mostly think of it whether in a secular or religious context. Now that’s not to say that being a soothing and comforting presence isn’t a part of it – of course it is. But there is also a tougher, protective, even combative side. There are evils to be confronted, beasts to be fought, there are vulnerable people to be protected and defended. That too is a part of pastoral care. This can sometimes come at great personal risk and cost to the shepherd. Jesus is very clear about this.

There is something important here too about safeguarding in a church context. We all complain about the bureaucratic aspects of safeguarding, the tiresome forms, the endless online training courses. But however annoying the bureaucracy of it may be, we can surely recognise that at its core what the church now calls safeguarding is really just basic Christian pastoral care. We recognise our vulnerability and the vulnerability of others, and we look out for one another. Where something troubling comes to our attention, we don’t just sit on it out of a superficial sense of kindness or not wishing to make a fuss. We need to be willing to have difficult conversations and to deal with the awkwardness and even hostility that may result.

But when we speak of the tough side of pastoral care, when we speak of the risk and sacrifice of the Good Shepherd, the most important thing is always that the shepherd knows the sheep and cares for the sheep. True pastoral care is not an ego thing, it isn’t a tough guy thing. True pastoral care is not a matter of self-assertion but of self-giving.

And what’s also important for anyone in a leadership position is to remember that there is no vacancy for the position of the Messiah. That role is already taken, that job has already been done. Those of us who are called to positions of pastoral responsibility whether in the church or in secular life follow that call in the knowledge that we too are under the care of the Good Shepherd to lays down His life for the sheep, whose rod and staff are there to comfort and to guide and to protect us, to whom with the +Father and the Holy Spirit be all praise and glory now and unto ages of ages. Amen.