A u c k l a n d A o t e a r o a N e w Z e a l a n d
a n g l i c a n c h u r c h
Sheep, Shepherds, Crooks and BBQ's
April 17, 2005
Easter 4 John 10:1-10
Once upon a time a rabbi used a metaphor.
Sheep - first century Palestinian sheep - were left pretty much to their own devices during daylight hours. Free to graze, wander, and socialize. At night, however, their shepherd herded them into a pen in order to minimize the risk of them being devoured by a thieving wolf or two. This was a communal pen containing sheep from more than one flock. Then in the morning each shepherd called his or her sheep by name to lead them out through the gate into the new day.
The rabbi said that he was the shepherd calling out his sheep. The rabbi, stirring his metaphor, also said he was the gate to the pen, the way to verdant pasture.
The rabbi's use of this metaphor greatly peeved his audience of religious leaders. They picked up rocks to chuck at him. The rabbi then made a discreet exit.
A couple of questions:
Firstly, what was Rabbi Jesus meaning given that he'd just had a run in with his critics over the healing of a blind man on the Sabbath?
Secondly, this pastoral metaphor is extremely powerful. Does it mean today what it meant in Jesus' day? Is it still relevant? Or maybe it's time to ditch the rural and come to the city?
The disability of the blind man, in chapter nine, preceding our text, made the man an outsider. He was considered less holy than religious people. Jesus, the metaphorical shepherd, calls him by name. His call is a call to freedom from the constraints of the religious controllers. Jesus' call challenges those who decide who belongs and who doesn't. Those who don't belong are Jesus' sheep.
Jesus is re-imaging the socially excluded as the religiously faithful. He was calling the black sheep all right. Colour wasn't the criteria. He was calling these marginalized people, who were not owned by other religious shepherds, to follow his teaching. He would lead them out and set them free to find their own spiritual pasture.
This incurred the wrath of those who had a lovely insiders/outsiders system, which rewarded the obedient and ostracized the disobedient. Freedom and systems often conflict.
The shepherd and sheep metaphor has been around a long time. Shepherd was a common metaphor for rulers, as far back as the Pharaohs. It was a way of describing royal responsibilities that included caring for subjects, the flock. It was an apt symbol used by King David's P.R. department when, by force, he ascended the throne.
You can find the metaphor in the Book of Numbers [27:16-17] and Micah [2:12-13]. It also features in various parables in the books of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
It is a persistent and pervasive metaphor. Today bishops are called 'shepherds' and given a symbolic crook at their ordination. Clergy are called 'pastors' and are expected to engage in something called 'pastoral care'.
I sometimes wonder if bishops and clergy exercised the 'pastoral care' of the Matthean parable where the shepherd abandoned the 99 to seek out the one, what legal complaints the Church would bring against them.
There is this false idea that pastoral care involves constant availability to help and listen to anyone and everyone in need. This is a sure recipe for exhausting clergy as well as fostering dependency. If a cleric actually was bold enough to ignore the 99 in order to be with the excluded one, I think the 99 could well benefit.
In our text, John 10:1-10, the metaphor is not saying that the sheep need to be looked after by an omnipresent shepherd. During the day the sheep did their own thing. At night the pen protected them. The task of the shepherd was not to hold the hoof of every sheep that was feeling a little shorn. Rather the task of the Shepherd in this story was to call/challenge people out of their enclosures into abundant life. The shepherd did this by calling each by their name. It was a call into freedom.
The trouble is that the Church has always had a problem with freedom. Freedom flies in the face of control. The Church has used metaphors like shepherd and sheep to keep people in an infantile spiritual state rather than affirming their God-given wisdom and ability to seek out their own resources. 'People need to be cared for' is the myth. And we have created an institution whose primary purpose is allegedly to do just that.
I do believe in caring. But I would prefer to talk about it not in the metaphorical framework of shepherd and sheep but in another ancient, and more Christian, metaphor of hospitable [manaaki tangata] table fellowship. From earliest times Christians have gathered around the Jesus table to talk, discuss, listen, remember, and commune. The Jesus table excludes no one.
The Jesus table is the context of our caring. The ordained one is not the carer. We all care. We all share what we can. We all take responsibility for our caring and sharing. The task of the ordained one is to make sure the gathering happens, and to set the tone of generous and inclusive hospitality. Every other task of the ordained one is peripheral to this metaphor.
The Jesus table metaphor does not treat people as sheep or children. Sheep implies the shepherd knows best. It is ludicrous to think of sheep and shepherds having equal voting rights in a democratic church structure. It is ludicrous to think of sheep thinking for themselves, determining their own futures, and participating in the tasks of leadership. It is ludicrous. It's a ludicrous metaphor that should be sent to the works.
Every metaphor has its limitations and the Jesus table is no exception. Yet I want to affirm hospitality as the primary way we exercise care. For hospitality is public, corporate, and often socially and spiritually challenging, whereas pastoral care is too often private, the preserve of the ordained specialist, and disconnected from the faith community.
I choose the BBQ, the symbol of Kiwi hospitality, over the crook, the symbol of the rescuing shepherd.