Good Shepherd Sunday: scripture and questions

Psalm 23
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

John 10:11-16
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

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Questions:
1. The shepherd is an image pervasive throughout the Bible. It is an image of God, of prophets and kings, of Jesus and of those who are called to leadership within the church. Has this image of the shepherd being meaningful for your life? What are its limitations? When it is most comforting or inspiring?

2. One scholar has noted that in Christian art, the image of the shepherd virtually disappeared around the fourth century, at the time that Christianity shifted from being a  persecuted minority religion to being a religion of power and prestige. What about the image of the shepherd do you suppose might have made it disappear when Christian’s rose to power?

Jeffrey Sartain
Executive Minister

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2 Responses to Good Shepherd Sunday: scripture and questions

  1. Hazel Lutz says:

    1. The shepherd is an image pervasive throughout the Bible. It is an image of God, of prophets and kings, of Jesus and of those who are called to leadership within the church. Has this image of the shepherd being meaningful for your life? What are its limitations? When it is most comforting or inspiring?

    My Response: Much of my feelings about the image of the Good Shepherd come from spending part of my childhood on a dairy farm, and from listening to the Handel song “He shall lead his flock like a shepherd. . . and gently lead those who are with young . . . and gather in his arms . . . etc. Direct quotes from some part of the King James version of the Bible. As an extension of this, I have found comfort, when I am anxious and lying in bed at night, imagining the giant hands of God protecting me, like a fence of fingers surrounding me. It is the physicality of both images that are helpful. The images are most helpful when I need them most.

    On the other hand, when I am not dealing with a specific problem, I clearly conceptualize God as an entity that has no physical properties or human-like intentions. The question of intenbtionality of God is a false question to my way of thinking. In that sense, I do not feel protected by any shepherd/God. It is only my need for protection sometimes that makes me glad I have a religious tradition upon which I can rely for images of comfort. And they do help me. It is through these images shared with other Christians that I am comforted. The sharing of the religious tradition gives it a holy power, a social power to help individuals and groups, unlike invented personal religions which only have power over the individual.

    At the time that Jesus and the disciples were preaching about the Good Shepherd as an image of God, herding animals was one of the ways that people supported themselves economically, I think. (I’m not a classical scholar.) Herding is now practiced in America by a very tiny minority. Most people work in offices, factories, or retail establishments in the US today, if they are lucky enough to have a job. Their major interactions are with people and things, not animals.

    Soooo, a contemporarily translated version of the Good Shepherd might be the Good Manager. The limitations of this image, however, lie in the fact that managers only relate to person while they are at work. Your manager doesn’t usually care about how well you are eating at home, or whether you are able to pay your mortage or dress your kids properly for school. Many employers don’t provide medical care. In contrast the shepherd role is responsible for all the needs of the flock. Managers who do do these things are truely unique, or perhaps intrusive!

    It seems hard to modernize the good shepherd image. Still, there are very important differences between good and bad managers. Can we develop parables with modern components that have the same power as the Biblical parables? Can they speak as broadly as the old ones, when our lives are no longer lived in a wholistic socio-economic group, but rather lived in scattered bits? Or was the Good Shepherd image already old-fashioned to the people that Jesus was preaching to? Were they already urbanized, and far from hearding and agriculture. It’s unclear to me. Is the essence of a powerful religius image the fact that it speaks to the past, to a time about which people have nostalgia? I don’t know. Maybe developing a Good Manager parable is really the way to go to bring the old parables alive to people.

    2. One scholar has noted that in Christian art, the image of the shepherd virtually disappeared around the fourth century, at the time that Christianity shifted from being a persecuted minority religion to being a religion of power and prestige. What about the image of the shepherd do you suppose might have made it disappear when Christian’s rose to power?

    My Response:
    Let me state first, that I might find is disappointing to see a Good Manager depicted in Christian Art. It might look sort of like some of the contemporary oleographs or printed leaflets showing modern people that I sometimes see handed out by evangilists in the late 20th century.

    It would take the right kind of artist. For instance there is a woman painter (forgot her name)whose work I saw. She painted portraits of contemporary Hispanic child-bearing age women walking proud in their tight jeans and sneakers, against a backdrop of the blue veil always despicted on the Virgin Mary. That art was a strong statement of affirmation of contemporarly Latino women in the US—that they should be valued more within the American Latino Catholic community. Modern clothes don’t need to make the religious image weak. Were the Good Shepherd’s clothes contemporary when his portrait was painted in the 4th century? I don’t know.

    To address your question more directly, I don’t think Christians rose to power, exactly. Rather they were embraced by the power of Rome. Rome is highly urbanized. The most cosmopolitan part of the world they knew at the time. Shepherding is associated with the lands that Rome rules. Sheep are led in large herds to slaughter in the big cities. The large urban populations need meat at a much faster rate than vilages in the country side, where sheep are killed seldom, just on speical occasions, and then probably only one at a time, as it takes a very big family to eat one sheep before it spoils. Sheep in the city are associated not with shepherding and caretaking, but rather with arrival of herds at the slaughter house. Not a good image for a religio-political leader.

    Also, the Roman empire continued to rule in the harsh way that it had. When the Roman rulers took on Christianity, they would have spurned images of gentleness. Power images are what was preferred. In the Eastern Christian church, the priest and the political ruler processed towards each other and met in the middle of the church where the altar was laid for the mass. This was state Christianity. Shepherds are associated with the rural hinterland, not the rule of urban state societies.
    Hazel Lutz

  2. Linda Paulson says:

    Sometimes it seems difficult to relate to the shephard image as a result of being involved in an urban environment. I found the image easier to relate to in my younger years when I was living the small town life instead of an urban lifestyle. From the historical perspective, I am wondering if the shift in viewpoints that occurred a few hundred years after Christ’s coming, had to do with what resulted after Constantine made Christianity the “official” relgion of the empire which resulted in the development of Constantinople, and whose influence included John Chrysostom, and Augustine. I understand that by the end of Constantine’s reign, that Christianity had been tranformed. Perhaps the shepharding image did not relate well to the time. I know Augustine used to make reference to how Christians had forgotten they were citizens of two cities, an image that has been referred to with some frequency. It appears that perhaps the importance of being involved with “the City of God” is almost the opposite image of the shepharding image.

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