Imagery of a Good Shepherd


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shepherd with sheep

Herb Montgomery | April 23, 2021

”This story that so many White Christians hold dear puts God on the side of these lost Black lives. And where we stand, whether in solidarity, neutrality, devil’s advocacy, indifference, or even opposition, reveals where we stand in relation to the God of the Jesus story. We are only with this God when we are with them.“

Our reading this week is from the gospel of John:

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me—just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.” (John 10:11-18)

Our passage focuses on the image of Jesus as a shepherd. This was a popular image of Jesus before Western Christianity became fixated on crucifixes. Rebecca Ann Parker and Rita Kashima Brock write in the prologue of their groundbreaking book Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire about how they saw early Christians use this imagery over and over:

“It took Jesus a thousand years to die. Images of his corpse did not appear in churches until the tenth century. Why not? This question set us off on a five-year pilgrimage that led to this book. Initially, we didn’t believe it could be true. Surely the art historians were wrong. The crucified Christ was too important to Western Christianity. How could it be that images of Jesus’s suffering and death were absent from early churches? We had to see for ourselves and consider what this might mean. In July 2002, we traveled to the Mediterranean in search of the dead body of Jesus. We began in Rome, descending from the blaze of the summer sun into the catacombs where underground tunnels and tombs are carved into soft tufa rock. The earliest surviving Christian art is painted onto the plaster-lined walls of tombs or carved onto marble sarcophagi as memorials to the interred. In the cool, dimly lit caverns, we saw a variety of biblical images. Many of them suggested rescue from danger. For example, Abraham and Isaac stood side by side in prayer with a ram bound next to them. Jonah, the recalcitrant prophet who was swallowed and coughed up by a sea monster, reclined peacefully beneath the shade of a vine. Daniel stood alive and well between two pacified lions. Other images suggested baptism and healing, such as the Samaritan woman drawing water from a well, John the Baptist dousing Jesus, depicted as a child, and Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Jesus also appeared as a shepherd carrying a lamb on his shoulders like Orpheus. We could not find a dead Jesus, not even one. It was just as the angel had said to the women looking for Jesus at his tomb, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” (Luke 24:5). “He is not here” (Mark 16:6). He most certainly was not.” (Italics added.)

Even today when you do a simple image search for Jesus, you’ll get ten or more images of a Jesus on a cross for every single image of a shepherd. Early Jesus followers had a very different focus: not the cross of Jesus but a living Jesus whose resurrection overcame and reversed everything his death accomplished. (See The Good News of Forceful Nonviolent Resurrection)

In this week’s passage from John, the focus isn’t the death of Jesus but Jesus taking life back up after his death. Even the purpose of Jesus’ laying down of life was that he might take it up again. The focus is not death, but taking hold of life—resurrection.

During this post-Easter season, remember that the cross interrupted Jesus’ life-giving ministry and teaching. The powerful, propertied, and privileged intended it to be permanent. The cross was meant to silence his calls for societal change, but the resurrection overturned that silencing. In the story, the resurrection doesn’t conquer death with more death. It answers death with death-reversing life; it answers death-dealing injustice with life-giving justice. I love this statement by Elizabeth Johnston that squarely defines act of Jesus’ crucifixion as a sin. And if it is a sin, then it is contrary to the will of God:

“Along with other forms of political and liberation theology, feminist theology repudiates an interpretation of the death of Jesus as required by God in repayment for sin . . . Jesus’ death was an act of violence brought about by threatened human men, as sin, and therefore against the will of a gracious God . . . What comes clear in the event, however, is not Jesus’ necessary passive victimization divinely decreed as a penalty for sin, but rather a dialectic of disaster and powerful human love through which the gracious God of Jesus enters into solidarity with all those who suffer . . . The victory of love, both human and divine, that spins new life out of this disaster is expressed in belief in the risen Christ.” (Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is, Kindle Location 4183)

The resurrection overturns the unjust state-sanctioned violence, and places Divine solidarity on the side of Jesus and all others who have unjustly suffered violence at the hands of the state. Today, that Divine solidarity includes Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Stephon Clark, Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson, Pamela Turner, Korryn Gaines, Yvette Smith, Miriam Carey, Shelley Frey, Darnisha Harris, Malissa Williams, Shantel Davis, Rekia Boyd, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Tarika Wilson, Kathryn Johnston, Kendra James, Tyisha Miller, George Floyd, Daunte Wright, and many, many more. This story that so many White Christians hold dear puts God on the side of these lost Black lives. And where we stand, whether in solidarity, neutrality, devil’s advocacy, indifference, or even opposition, reveals where we stand in relation to the God of the Jesus story. We are only with this God when we are with them.

The resurrection places the God of the Jesus story squarely on the side of justice and in the midst of the state-murdered community. The symbol of resurrection sends a message of justice overcoming injustice, love conquering hate, life overcoming death, and an unjust tomb not being able to hold justice back.

Today we need a new story of justice overcoming in the end. I don’t believe justice inevitably overcomes injustice on its own. If the moral arc of the universe is to bend toward justice, we must choose to bend it that way.

In the wake of the outcome of the trial of Derek Chauvin for George Floyd’s murder, I have to question if we will bend that arc systemically toward justice? As we daily witness Black lives cut down by police, we have a lot of work still to do.

If things are going to change, we are going to have to choose to change them.

Before we close, I will offer one word of caution concerning our reading this week. I see the image of the Shepherd in this passage held in contrast with the myth of redemptive suffering. The myth of the redemptive suffering teaches those who are abused and oppressed to be willing to suffer in order to change the heart or “redeem” their oppressors. As Brown and Parker rightly state, “The problem with this theology is that it asks people to suffer for the sake of helping evildoers see their evil ways. It puts concern for the evildoer ahead of concern for the victim of evil. It makes victims the servants of the evildoers’ salvation.” (Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker, For God So Loved The World? p. 16)

There is a difference between the self-sacrifice of disempowered people and the self-sacrifice of empowered people for those they love. John’s gospel is believed to be the latest written in our cannon. In John, Jesus has evolved in the story telling into an incarnate, cosmic figure, an empowered figure. The phrase, “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord,” indicates that John is placing Jesus in a position of empowerment not disempowerment.

In the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, the story is different. Jesus belongs to the community of the disempowered. His death is an act of sanctioned, state violence. His life is taken from him and then his death is powerfully overturned in the symbol of the resurrection. It would be irresponsible and dangerous to hold up the self-sacrifice of Jesus in John’s version of the Jesus story as an example to be followed by the community Jesus belongs to Matthew, Mark and Luke. In synoptic gospels, Jesus is a disempowered person. Jesus, unlike Paul, is not even a Roman citizen. As Howard Thurman so eloquently writes,

“Jesus was not a Roman citizen. He was not protected by the normal guarantees of citizenship—that quiet sense of security which comes from knowing that you belong and the general climate of confidence which it inspires. If a Roman soldier pushed Jesus into a ditch, he could not appeal to Caesar [as did Paul]; he would be just another Jew in the ditch. Standing always beyond the reach of citizen security, he was perpetually exposed to all the ‘arrows of outrageous fortune,’ and there was only a gratuitous refuge—if any—within the state.”(Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, p. 34)

In the synoptics, Jesus is a non-citizen, a marginalized person, who was in the end executed by the state for standing up to injustice. At minimum we need to perceive the difference between the synoptic’s Jesus and John’s Jesus. As a parent, I understand the imagery of John’s gospel. I have sacrificed for my children throughout their lives. I know what that kind of sacrifice feels like. And that kind of sacrifice is a very different from asking survivors, the abused, the oppressed to sacrifice themselves to change the hearts and minds of their abusers or the laws and policies unjust systems.

However you interpret the shepherd’s willingness to lay his life down for his sheep as contrasted with the commitment level of a “hired hand” here in John, what we don’t read in this passage is a sheep being willing to lay down their life to change the heart of an oppressive shepherd. The self-sacrifice of victims and survivors, people whose self is already being sacrificed and whose humanity is already being denied, only causes further damage. Justice in this context would be achieved by taking hold of one’s humanity, not sacrificing it.

And that leads me to my overall point this week.

Justice only wins in the end if we make it win.

We are in need of new stories of justice overcoming in the end in our context today. And I believe we can create those stories with our choices, here and now. When we choose to make justice ultimately win, not just in isolated occurrences but systemically, we are determining whether our ancient, cherished stories of justice overcoming ring true or are merely desperate, wishful fairytales.

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us.

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. How does focussing through the lens of a good shepherd rather than a substitutionary, crucified Jesus impact your own Jesus following and your engagement with public social injustice? Contrast and discuss with your group.

3. What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week