April 25, 2021
My first job was as a line cook at a fast food restaurant. I had been raised with a strong work ethic, so in a lot of ways I think the managers really liked the fact that I stuck around for quite a while. Even after I went to college, when I’d come home over the summer they had that same job waiting for me. But I remember one particular summer, not long before I left for seminary, it occurred to me to wonder why I was working so hard at this job. After all, in the seven years that I had worked there, I was still being paid minimum wage. It seemed silly to give it my all when the company I was working for was literally only giving me what they legally had to and nothing more. Why should I do more than the minimum, since that’s all they’re paying me for?
Which is to say that I get what Jesus meant when he said that the hired hands don’t care about the sheep. When it’s just a job, just time and effort you give in return for money, there really isn’t any reason to go above and beyond. They didn’t have a stake in the success of this flock, after all. And when the hired hands saw a wolf—menacing, dangerous, deadly as it was—it only makes sense that they’d figure “I’m not getting paid enough to die for these sheep,” and run away. But the thing is, the sheep believed they could trust those hired hands to keep them safe.
We trust a lot of things to keep us safe, or to bring us life, or give us meaning. We put a lot of stock in owning a home, or landing the right job, or having the right opinions, or getting the right friends and acquaintances. There’s a lot of energy that goes into defending these things that we put our trust in—just look at the way people argue about just about anything! Think of how mad people get when something they put their trust in gets challenged—from the racial unrest to Dr. Seuss to town development plans to a friend’s reputation. We will store our whole loyalty into these things that promise us safety or security, life or meaning, fulfillment or hope; and we do that because we expect the thing we’re defending will defend us in turn.
But all those things are hired hands. When tough times come, all those things are as likely to up and flee as they are to stick around for you. Your house might get foreclosed on. Your might find yourself laid off, considered “nonessential.” Your opinions might prove utterly baseless or destructive and your friends and acquaintances might turn their back on you when times get tough. But the thing is, the hired hand is not meant to be that source of security or meaning or hope. We can’t expect those things to always be there for us. The hired hand is not and can never be the shepherd.
When Jesus uses the imagery of a shepherd in today’s gospel, it’s an old, familiar image to the people he’s talking to. The Jews have a long scriptural tradition of shepherds—all the great people of their history were shepherds, from Moses and Zipporah to Rebecca, Abraham, and David. Shepherds were the image used to describe kings and priests, leaders of the people who were expected to care for their flock. God even defiantly claims the mantle of shepherd in Ezekiel because the priesthood had failed so badly to be good shepherds for Israel.
So what does the Good Shepherd do? It makes me think of this video that kinda went viral this past week—y’all might have seen it already. There is this sheep, stuck in a ditch. And a man—the shepherd—pulls at its leg, not particularly gingerly but clearly knowing what he’s doing. After a little while he pulls the sheep free from the ditch and it goes frolicking in celebration of its freedom before immediately falling into the ditch again. And so the shepherd has to do it all over again.
The Good Shepherd is with us when we find ourselves stuck in a ditch. He pulls us out and gets us back to safety again, and is right there still when we immediately get stuck in the ditch once more. He’s not like the hired hands—those things we give our loyalty to but don’t give their loyalty back to us. He’s present for us, through thick and thin, when things are going well, and especially when things are not going well: when the loved one gets a cancer diagnosis; when the boss hands you a pink slip; when the college letter comes back in the small envelope; when the vaccinations take longer than we hoped. Through it all, the Good Shepherd sticks with us.
And he doesn’t stick with us out of pity. He doesn’t do it despite our wretched sinfulness or as a way to passive-aggressively shame us for not being worthy of his love. He does it because, as he says in the gospel, he cares for his flock. He is with you, there to protect you and comfort you and guide you through those really, really awful times in life because you are more precious than diamonds to him. You are his beloved and he will do anything to fill you with hope and meaning and safety and inspiration. The Good Shepherd is good because you matter to him.
And he has other sheep in the flock too, that he cares about just as much as he cares about you. His other sheep find themselves stuck in ditches too; they wander and need to be found too; they are in danger of wolves too; they put too much trust in the hired hands too. So be inspired by that abiding love that Jesus has for us. Let the Good Shepherd lead you to greater and greater love, knowing that where his love goes, abundant life goes too. Remember that love when you find yourself ready to gear up for battle for your favorite hired hand. Remember that love when others seem to go astray. The Good Shepherd calls us to be one flock, because we all listen to his voice. And because we are all one flock, let’s look to what his love would have us do when we find ourselves disagreeing, arguing, and butting heads like sheep. It’s the Good Shepherd who cares for us all; he calls us all to follow him, and he won’t leave us in danger or chaos or sadness, and nothing will ever change that.
Thanks be to God. Amen.