Jeff Rudy ~ What Good Is a Dead Shepherd?
The texts for this sermon come from Psalm 23 and John 10:11-18.
In the middle of the Easter season every year is what some call “Good Shepherd Sunday,” which falls on the fourth Sunday of Easter. The revised common lectionary readings for this Sunday are always related to the image of the shepherd – Psalm 23 is the psalm all three years, and the Gospel reading always comes from the 10th chapter of John’s Gospel, which prominently displays Jesus’ referring to himself as the “good shepherd.”
Good shepherds develop a sort of bond with their sheep. Some say that the bond is such that the sheep consider the shepherd as one of their own. This can shed a little light on the idea that not only is Jesus our “good shepherd” but is also deemed as “the lamb of God.” The bond of trust between sheep and shepherd is confirmed by David’s meditation on how God is the shepherd of God’s people and by Jesus’ use of this analogy: “I know my own and my own know me.” The sheep know the shepherd by the sound of the shepherd’s voice.
My father concurs with this. Until he suffered a heart attack, my Dad had a flock of about 100 sheep. I talked with him a few weeks ago, reminiscing on those days and pondering on this beautiful metaphor. He said that Jesus’ statement that the sheep know his voice is right on target.
Whenever the sheep got out and Dad was at the farm store several miles away, one of the neighbors would call him to let him know the sheep were out of their pen. The question became, how would he respond? If he wanted the task to not consume the whole day, he couldn’t dispatch one of his employees…the hired hands, if you will…but would have to go down to the farm himself. There was a powerful combination of the sound of the feed hitting the trough along with the unique sound of his voice that would be the key to fully inviting and bringing them back home.
The 23rd Psalm, Jesus’ comforting words, and experiences like my dad’s that confirm these truths evoke a sort of pleasant rural image. But other than these pleasantries, the picture of a shepherd is one that, frankly, we have overly romanticized when in reality, the life of a shepherd, especially in the ancient world, was anything but warm and fuzzy. It wasn’t glamorous; it was messy, risky, tedious, and dangerous. It was really a thankless job, but think about this: shepherds were tasked with caring for the very animals that would be slaughtered as the sacrificial offerings of the worshiping community. Because of the value of the commodity of sheep in the ancient middle east, whenever a sheep or a lamb had been attacked or killed by a predator, the shepherd would have to bring proof by retrieving a part of the sheep, which meant fighting the wolves or whatever the predator was.
And this is the part of the analogy. Jesus said, memorably, that he is the good shepherd, and that means that he is willing to lay down his life for the sheep. This, of course, speaks to a sort of quality that is hailed as wonderful – sacrificial, self-giving, love. It’s a simple picture that emerges really – the sheep face danger; the shepherd goes out to meet the danger, and, if necessary, takes upon himself the fate that would have befallen the sheep. “I lay down my life for the sheep.”
But all of this begs the question about the nature of this good shepherd, which is this: “What good is a dead shepherd?”
“I lay down my life for the sheep.” If that is where Jesus’ analogy had ended, then this question would be even more puzzling. This is more than a theological question; it’s a practical one. If a predator kills the shepherd, what is to stop that predator from destroying the sheep? At the very least, as the prophecy said, when the shepherd is struck down the sheep will scatter. At worst, the wolf eats the flock.
The tragic scene of Aslan’s death in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and what the evil witch says to him as she slays him speaks to this very problem that makes a sacrificial shepherd seem so pointless. The lion Aslan, in the fashion of the good shepherd, had gone to meet the witch and had agreed to trade his life in exchange for the life of Edmund Pevensie who had betrayed the Narnians by leading the witch to them. Edmund regretted his traitorous action, but his punishment was supposed to be death. However, Aslan stepped in and appealed to an ancient agreement that would establish the balance of justice. An innocent life (Aslan, in this case) could be given so that the guilty party (in this case Edmund) wouldn’t have to be condemned to death.
But for the witch, this was more than just about an exacting of punishment or a balancing of the scales – it was a battle in which she was seeking to rule the whole world and destroy or enslave all her enemies. So, after Aslan is tied up, his mane is completely shaved, and he’s beaten to within an inch of his life, the witch drew near to the lion’s ear with an attempt to crush his spirit in defeat as she dealt the death blow. She said this:
And now, who has won? Fool, did you think that by all this you would save the human traitor? Now I will kill you instead of him as our pact was and so the Deep Magic will be appeased. But when you are dead what will prevent me from killing him as well? And who will take him out of my hand then? Understand that you have given me Narnia forever, you have lost your own life and you have not saved his. In that knowledge, despair and die.
What good is a dead Aslan? What good is a dead shepherd? What is to stop the wolf from destroying the sheep too? The answer to these questions is, nothing.
Unless…The shepherd’s not actually dead anymore. Did you hear? The shepherd’s not dead anymore!
As he did in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, so also here in John, Jesus gives a premonition of his death – “I lay down my life for the sheep.” But once again, he also follows it up with the glimpse of hope on the other side of that valley of the shadow of death. “I lay down my life…in order to take it up again.”
This is why this passage finds its way into the season of Easter. Because what’s good about the dead shepherd is that he isn’t dead anymore and, in his return, has brought in a bigger flock of sheep than what had been known before. Jesus speaks of another flock to add to the fold – a way of speaking about salvation being not only for those inside the Jewish community, but also for the rest of the world. It was after the resurrection when this reality would come into being. The shepherd’s not dead anymore…and he’s even more powerful than before.
In Narnia, Aslan was resurrected as the White Witch went to battle against the good Narnians led by the humans who were all loyal to Aslan. When Aslan came back to life, the first witnesses were two girls, who laughed and danced and played with him until it was time to gather more troops for the battle. So while the battle is out on the field, Aslan stormed the witch’s castle, breathed upon the creatures that the witch had frozen and they thawed, coming back to life. They then ran out to defeat the witch and sent her comrades into full retreat. In describing his resurrection, Aslan appealed to the “deeper magic from before the dawn of time,” which said, “that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table [on which Aslan was killed] would crack and Death itself would start working backwards…”
What’s good about the dead shepherd who has taken up his life again? The sheep who aren’t in the flock yet but are waiting to come alive are seen as the shepherd to be potential sheep.
Jesus was trying to get them to see that the Gentiles were not really their enemies: they were sheep who weren’t in the fold yet.
And maybe that ought to speak to us about our role in relation to the mission of the good shepherd. The once dead, but now resurrected good shepherd, I would suggest, is telling us – I have other sheep…potential sheep outside of your fences, outside of your walls, that are waiting for the life-giving word, for the life-giving witness, for the life-giving invitation of the good shepherd, whose voice we are called to bear in the world.
Will we introduce them to the good shepherd or will we run and hide like the hired hand?