I am the good shepherd

When I was a teenager, in a country far away from here, we young people were often irritated to be called kids by those older and wiser than ourselves. If we dared we would reply, “If I’m a kid you’re a goat and all the dirty slops go down your throat!” Not a very nice rhyme to start a sermon with, but it’s what came to mind when I read this passage of Scripture: if Jesus is a shepherd then we are the sheep. If you have been close to real sheep you will know they are not like the ones portrayed in children’s books – fluffy, clean sheep which look as if they have been washed in some amazing detergent, all clustered happily round  an antiseptic Jesus in glowing white robes and clean white face. Sheep are not like that. Sheep on the Welsh hills where I once did a long retreat are big, dirty, muddy and dim. They fall into ditches, get stuck in the mud, wobble around on ridiculously thin legs and have really stupid expressions on their faces. It is not at all flattering of Jesus to compare us to sheep, but it is probably quite close to the truth. When it comes to living the Christian life most of us are muddy, battered and rather stupid. We are close enough still to Lent to know how hard we find it to live the Christian life in the way we would like. We have walked with Jesus through Holy Week and seen how badly even his closest friends behaved. Are we any better? If we can keep in mind that we really are like sheep we may keep a touch of humility in ourselves that may make it possible for Jesus to save us in the end.

But then we have the shepherd. Now there is lots of fine imagery in the background of the Hebrew Scriptures to give Jesus something to live up to. David, of course, was the great Shepherd King. He told Saul “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father and when there came a lion or a bear and took a lamb from the flock I went after him and smote him and delivered it out of his mouth.” (1 Sam 17:34). Indeed, God himself is frequently described as a shepherd, not only in the famous Psalm 23 but also in Psalm 80 “Hear, O thou Shepherd of Israel, thou that leadest Joseph like a sheep.” God as shepherd of the people Israel gives all shepherds a high role model. But there are other ambiguities about shepherds. Shepherds in the time of Jesus were regarded as pretty disreputable characters. They lived in the wild, with their sheep. They did not have settled homes. They were not clean or well dressed, certainly not in white robes. I have seen real shepherds in Romania from whom you would certainly keep your distance. When Luke has angels appear to the shepherds in Bethleham it is precisely to show that this new Gospel has come for the poorest and most rejected of all people. We cannot be surprised that the Good Shepherd ended his life outside the city on a rubbish dump. That’s where shepherds could be said to belong.

And there is another side to a shepherd. The good shepherd who goes after his lost sheep does not do so out of love, but of necessity. He only has a few sheep and they are his bank balance. If he loses one he loses his money. He is jealous of his sheep because they are all the money he has. He will fight for his sheep because they are his livelihood. That is what God is like. He himself says “I am a jealous God…” He will not share Israel with other gods. He wants them entirely for himself. He will fight for his people against any nation that attacks them. God is a possessive, jealous God, and thank goodness for that. If he were not he would not have bothered to come down to earth and suffer on the Cross to save us from our own stupidity. If Jesus were not the son of a jealous God he would have abandoned most of us and perhaps contented himself with a few fluffy white sheep who never got dirty in his heavenly garden. No, Jesus goes after the sheep even when it leads him to the Cross. And God comes running to greet his prodigal sons and daughters, sweeping them into his arms even though they are filthy and smelly.

And there we are reminded of Pope Francis who begged his priests to go in amongst their flocks, live close to them until they had “the smell of the sheep” about their persons. It’s a much healthier smell than all that stuff you get from the supermarkets! But seriously what does this mean? Do we really get in among the poor? Do we care as much about the poor as about the rich? Do we, like Pope Francis, see that the poor are not on the edge of Christian society, but at the centre, where Jesus placed them when he said, “Blessed are the poor.”

Pope Francis is not the first Pope to speak passionately about the poor. All the recent popes have done so. So have archbishops of Canterbury. Back in the fourth century St John Chrystostom told his parishioners in wealthy Constantinople: “The rich usually imagine that, if they do not physi­cally rob the poor, they are committing no sin. But the sin of the rich consists in not sharing their wealth with the poor. In fact, the rich person who keeps all his wealth for himself is committing a form of robbery. The reason is that all wealth comes from God, and so belongs to everyone equally.” We in the West are the rich, constantly raising our standard of living at the expense of the poorer nations in other parts of the world. Do we really care about that?

Let’s get back to our Good Shepherd. He has placed scruffy shepherds at the centre of the Christian faith. He has put dirty sheep at the centre of his Father’s love. That is good news for us. Pope Francis tells us in The Joy of the Gospel “I want a Church which is poor and for the poor. They have much to teach us. … in their difficulties they know the suffering Christ. We need to let ourselves be evangelized by the poor. That is the Good News of the Resurrection, that even we, sinful, weak and unsatisfactory Christians as we are can find salvation if we are willing to be like the poor and trust in a jealous God who simply will not let us go.

Last Sunday I said mass under beautiful Zimbabwean trees with 200 teenagers, 40 orphans, some lovely African nuns and a crowed of village people. These are the poor. These are the people who can evangelise us. These are the people who can teach us what the Resurrection is about.