Post by Tommy Parker
The Eighth Sunday After Pentecost
As I read through the readings for this coming Sunday, two words caught my attention: sheep and shepherd. And no wonder—some version of these words is repeated 13 times in the readings by my count.
Perhaps my attention to these words in particular is rooted elsewhere though. In my house, sheep are a common topic of discussion. One of my housemates is a talented spinner, knitter, and general expert on all things wool. She knows all about sheep—the differences between a Rambouillet versus a Merino versus a Shetland (and the list goes on). She can tell you all about their life cycles, their diets, how to know if they are healthy. Sometimes she will even wax on about a particular animal now twenty years gone who had the most lovely fleeces and was a joy to be around. She is probably the closest I will ever come to knowing a real-life shepherd.
I have learned a few things about shepherds from her. Good shepherds know their sheep by name, know their temperaments, and even their personalities. Shepherds pay attention to their flocks, and make sure that every sheep is able to get everything it needs to be healthy and whole. Shepherds love sheep.
So, it should perhaps be shocking when, in the Jeremiah passage, we find shepherds who destroy and scatter their sheep. Something has gone terribly wrong. If shepherds love sheep, then to destroy and scatter a flock is to go against the very core of who they are. What could make a shepherd do such a thing?
If we look back a chapter (to Jeremiah 22), the context becomes clear: the prophet is speaking to the kings of Judah who have chosen to look after their own self-interests instead of the people placed under their care. Jeremiah 22:15-17 (NIV) demonstrates this clearly:
“Does it make you a king
to have more and more cedar?
Did not your father have food and drink?
He did what was right and just,
so all went well with him.
He defended the cause of the poor and needy,
and so all went well.
Is that not what it means to know me?”
declares the Lord.
“But your eyes and your heart
are set only on dishonest gain,
on shedding innocent blood
and on oppression and extortion.”
The prophet promises that these kings will be dealt with, but more importantly, God is more concerned with gathering the flock and raising up new shepherds who will care for the sheep. For sheep who have been abused by their shepherds, Psalm 23 is like a balm. Far from the hustle of our modern world, the psalmist invites us to let go of our concerns and to simply rest in the presence of a good shepherd. The shepherd promises abundance, safety, goodness, justice, and mercy.
In the Gospel passage, Jesus demonstrates this “shepherd’s care” to us. He sees that the apostles are tired and encourages them to find some rest. When the crowd arrives, he has compassion on them—and knowing that his apostles are tired and need a break, he takes on the burden of managing the crowd himself. Later, as the day grows late and the crowd gets hungry, Jesus makes sure that food is available and that everyone is able to eat. Unlike the unjust kings from the Jeremiah passage, Jesus demonstrates a level of care and compassion for his flocks that rises to the level of miraculous.
In the passage from Ephesians, it seems that Jesus has done the work of drawing the scattered sheep near. But then in the Gospel text, it is Jesus and the apostles who are trying to find some distance, and the sheep are the ones in pursuit. And so the text presents us with images of a shepherd who both gathers us up and is also constantly on the move such that we must run to catch up with him. In both instances, the shepherd is always providing, always caring, and always attentive to the needs of the flock.
For those of us who are pastors or leaders in the church (which is, after all, the body of Christ), it may be tempting to think of ourselves as shepherds. I would caution against this though. Sheep are conditioned from birth to follow the flock—whether lead by the shepherd, or by other members of the flock. Where one sheep leads, other sheep will generally follow, even if the lead sheep takes them into danger. The apostles were certainly leaders in the church, and yet they were also certainly members of Jesus’s flock. Pastors, elders, deacons, priests, ministers, reverends, bishops, popes, apostles, servants, and all others ordained or set aside as leaders in the church: we should not forget that we, too, are sheep. Some other sheep may trust us and follow us, but we only make fools of ourselves if we begin to think that we are the shepherd. Only the shepherd knows what is best for the flock. We go where the good shepherd leads. And, thanks be to God, the shepherd gathers us up when we go astray.