The Good Shepherd
John 10.7 Jesus said, "I tell you the
truth: I am the gate for the sheep."
Living in the countryside of England as I do, any
text which talks of sheep, as today's gospel reading does, has an added
poignancy. Where I live, there are sheep all around - except for last year
when the foot-and- mouth epidemic took them all away.
When my grandmother died, I claimed for my own a picture which hung on
her bedroom wall. It was a photograph, presumably posed, of a shepherd
standing amongst his sheep. What makes it so delightful is that the
shepherd has his head bowed in prayer and all the sheep (actually nibbling
the grass) looking as if they are doing the same. It was taken around the
turn of the 19th century and has all the hallmarks of the
sentimentality of the era.
The point about sheep is that although they may sound a little dim they
have traits honed by years of survival. They stick together and if one
senses danger, all do. They are obedient (up to a point) and will go or be
driven at will. And if one is lost, it is a pitiful sight and is unlikely
to survive. Sheep fare best with other sheep. That is why the word �sheep�
in English is both singular and plural. It should come as no surprise that
the first cloned animal was a sheep!
It is thus no wonder that Jesus aligned himself as a good shepherd. I
suspect he truly saw his fellow human beings as lost and vulnerable, in
need of the guidance of a loving shepherd, and of the companionship of
each other. In the words of John, they needed to hear his voice.
It is probably true that most of my friends and acquaintances
would certainly not see themselves as lost or vulnerable but rather as
successful and focused. In fact, any suggestion otherwise would be
rather an insult. As for needing to hear the voice of Jesus - forget it!
And there lie the ills of much of our Western society - not so much
that few wish to "hear the voice of Jesus", but that we increasingly shun
the voice of any authority. Witness in Britain a breakdown of
family life and of discipline in schools, a decline in spiritual guidance
from the churches, and even a declining influence of democracy as a
presidential style of leadership is pushed upon us.
It was Margaret Thatcher, past Prime Minister of Britain, who uttered
the words, "There is no such thing as society, only individuals and
families". The country has been in gentle decline ever since. Thatcher's
ministerial ethic was to encourage the rights and hopes of the individual.
Since then, the rights of the individual have been paramount in Britain. A
"compensation culture" has been born.
For many people, two phrases dominate their thinking: "Who is to
blame?" and "How much is it worth?" This greedy, self-centred and
unforgiving way of life is slowly strangling the Western world. We are
breeding a planet where people from all walks of life live in fear of
transgressing another's individuals rights, to the extent that it is
difficult to exercise compassion or commonsense.
Jesus was a strong individual who knew too well the needs of society as
well as of the individual. He understood the need of fellowship and
community, of shared values and ethics. Note the word "need". Humans
fellowship and community. It is part of our ancient lineage to be tribal
and to have a common purpose. Religion (any religion) is part of that
process. We hang together by our shared precepts, beliefs, and ethics.
True, we will clash with other, different, beliefs, and there will always
be disagreement and sometimes war. That is awful, but it's part of being
Jesus saw a different society. He cared for the individual, but in a
collective sense. He healed individuals but he taught the masses. He
brought people together (feeding the five thousand), he preached to the
crowds (the Beatitudes), and he taught them that their neighbour was
anyone in need. He instilled in his followers an awareness of each other.
He taught that humility and sacrifice were greater attributes than greed
and selfishness. His own life, he said, was the gateway to true life.
Certainly when we look at the reading from Acts 2 - probably as
accurate a picture as we are likely to get of the early church - we see a
closely knit band of disciples living an almost communist way of life.
Everything is shared, each receiving according to their needs. Our world
today has let the word "need" be supplanted by "want", and we collectively
suffer for it.
John warns us through Jesus that there will be many who will rise up to
lead people astray. How right he was. Successive generations of all
nations have had leaders corrupted by the corridors of power. I suppose
the trick for the Christian is to listen very carefully to the voices
before them, and to question closely whether or not they are hearing the
voice of Jesus. We must question whether we are listening to common sense
and justice, or to ideology and revenge. Discernment seems an old
fashioned word whose decline has impoverished society. Jesus discerned
real needs and did his best to satisfy them. That is our prototype.
Are our leaders wanting to pander to our wants or satisfy our needs?
Are we, as Jesus would wish, being shown fresh pastures? Or are we being
led like sheep to the slaughter?