“Jesus said, ‘I am the good Shepherd’”
It is one of the great and classic images of care and one which is much beloved. It appears frequently in glass and stone, in tapestry and mosaic even as the Shepherd’s Psalm (Ps. 23) shapes story and song, prayer and praise. The image of Christ the Good Shepherd is very much with us.
Yet we easily forget the radical nature of care that the image of Christ the Good Shepherd presents to us. The Good Shepherd, after all, “lays down his life for the sheep”. In other words, the care of the Good Shepherd has death and resurrection in it. The care is not so much cozy comfort as it is challenge. It is something which the poets help us to see as well.
Against the cheery optimism that so troubled Thomas Hardy, for example, because such an attitude was unable, as he puts it, to “exact a full look at the worst” of things, there is the deeper realization of Gerard Manley Hopkins that “there lives the dearest freshness deep down things”. Thus Hardy’s salutary caution that “delight is a delicate growth cramped by crookedness, custom and fear” can give place to a world seen as “charged with the grandeur of God”, once we realize that God has not only looked upon the bleak, black darkness of our very worst but has entered into it. Such is the radical nature of the cure – the remedy – in the care.
Jesus says, ‘I am the Good Shepherd’. Through the eyes of John we learn just how radical an identification with us and with God that statement is. It involves an intensification and a re-working of at least two Old Testament passages: the Shepherd’s Psalm and the story of the revelation of God to Moses in the Burning Bush. In Christ, the Psalm takes on an added dimension. There is an inescapable identity with God who reveals himself to Moses in the Burning Bush as “I am who I am.”
“The Lord is my shepherd”, the psalmist says. Jesus in the Gospels, takes that image upon himself and gives it a deeper meaning. Beyond the accompanying presence of God with us in “the valley of the shadow of death”, there is the God who goes into the darkness and loneliness of each and every death, the God who embraces our death as well as our life.
”Thy rod and thy staff” in the psalm take on an entirely different meaning. They signify the cross and the rule of Christ. The God whom we have crucified by our sins and the follies of our wickednesses is the God who has conquered our sin and death. Christ is the Risen Lord and that makes all the difference. It intensifies the radical meaning of the psalm.
The strong message is that God goes with us, that the mysteries of life and death are taken up into the greater mystery of God. There is something more and something greater than death, something more than the waywardness of our sins that distance us from God.
The root of care is cure. There is a remedy in it. That goes a long ways towards countering the shallow therapeutic forms of care as comfort. It recalls us to care as challenge, the challenge to will the cure that has been accomplished for us, the challenge to maturity and to individual and corporate responsibility. This is the counter to the tendency to want to be taken care of which runs through our current concerns about health care and education, as if we are asking “who will take care of me or my children?”, rather than asking “how can I and my children take better care of ourselves and others?” With the one we are passive recipients of care as comfort; with the other we take hold of the challenge of care both personally, collectively and actively.
In the wonderful collect which graces this day and week, Christ is identified as “both a sacrifice for sin and an example of godly life”. The cure of the cross, radical and absolute, carries over into a pattern of holy life, the pattern of death and resurrection in us. Such is the care of the Good Shepherd. This quality of care is intended to shape the pastoral ministry of the Church, properly known as “the cure of souls.” When it doesn’t, of course, then care easily becomes patronising, belittling and even abusive. But this quality of care extends far beyond the Church. Priests and pastors are shepherds in the image of Christ the Good Shepherd but so too are parents and grandparents, guardians and mentors, teachers and coaches, friends and neighbours!
Such shepherding care challenges us to be mature and responsible. Sometimes it means, to use an over-used expression, “tough love”. The challenge is to embrace the cure in the care. It means accountability and responsibility which are there for us to take a hold of both for ourselves and for others. It requires, however, the naming of the spiritual and intellectual principles upon which moral order depends.
The question of the principles which inform and shape the moral order of communities is a contemporary concern belonging, for instance, to the debates between “communitarians” and “liberals” in political philosophy. The communitarians – admirably represented in Canada’s Charles Taylor – recognize the need for a moral understanding and the recovery of virtue as the counter to the increasing disintegration of the social and political order. They seek to reanimate the social virtues of co-operation and community.
But is this really to name the spiritual principles of the moral order? Or is it little more than Mario Cuomo’s advice that “the most important thing in [your] lives will be [your] ability to believe in believing?” This is a contentless faith which offers no hope of understanding. It speaks of the need for traditions but without naming their animating principles, the governing ideals.
On the other side, are the liberals who, like Richard Rorty, for example, utterly eschew any role or place for religion in social and political affairs, advocating with an almost religious kind of fervour that there is no God whose will we should try to realize; that belief in objective moral prescriptions is but a yearning for a transcendent authority to tell us what to do; and that belief in objective truth is equally such a yearning and equally futile. Exeunt morality, it may seem.
Yet what is still wanted are “moralising stories” for without them the center cannot hold – just don’t ask what they mean. But, then, what are such stories without their meaning? Nonetheless, there is a similar recognition with the communitarians of the need for something beyond the self-interest of the autonomous self.
The image of Christ the Good Shepherd is constantly before us. The care that it signals is the care that challenges us to maturity and responsibility, mutual toleration and respect, commitment and service. It is the great image of the care of God for us. Christ the Good Shepherd gathers us into the life of God.
“Jesus said, ‘I am the good Shepherd’”
Fr. David Curry
Christ Church, Easter 2, 2017