16 September 2007 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Luke 15, 1-10 Changing the Image of the Good Shepherd
Many of us have a deep devotion to the Good Shepherd. This devotion springs from the many paintings and statues of the Good Shepherd who looks at his sheep with kindness — or who looks kind, sweet and gentle himself. In many of these depictions in parishes, houses, and institutions named after the Good Shepherd, Jesus looks like a Hollywood actor. Esteban Murillo Bartolome (c 1660) in his rendition of the Good Shepherd, even depicts Jesus as a child, the symbol of tenderness (Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain).
But if one reflects on the story of the Good Shepherd and knows the background of shepherding in the time of Jesus, the shepherd is no tender, sweet image. The ancient Israelites were pastoral people and many of them own flocks of sheep; or the village itself was the owner of the flock. Shepherding was one of the oldest professions beginning around 6,000 years ago in Asia Minor. Sheep were kept for their milk, meat, and wool. And in many societies, the shepherd became part of the economy. Since the responsibility to care for the flock which the village owned was given to the shepherd, he literally placed his life on the line. The rocky terrain of the Palestine made it easy for sheep to wander or to get lost. Since each sheep was important, the duty of the shepherd was to find the wandering sheep.
Moreover, the duty of the shepherd was to keep the flock together and protect it from wolves and other predators. Furthermore, the shepherd guided the whole flock and guaranteed that they made it to market in time for shearing. Having this background, it was not an easy feat to become a shepherd. Now, if you are one of the faint of heart, you cannot be a shepherd. If you’re soft and fragile, you cannot tend a flock.
Therefore, the image of the Good Shepherd has to be modified. The test of the real shepherd is not in how he treats his flock, but how he treats the enemies of his flock. In the Gospel today, we find a tough Jesus: one who is not afraid to challenge even the most powerful and influential people in his time like the Pharisees and the scribes. He says to them, “Woe to you, you scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites!” In addition, remember how angry Jesus was at those merchants who defiled the temple! He showed his fangs if necessary! In the Old Testament, many Biblical heroes were shepherds like Moses, the prophet Amos who was a Tekoan shepherd, and King David. In fact, the shepherd was so important that it would become the leadership icon of Israel. All of them became heroes because they fought the enemies of Israel. They were tough. They were warriors. They were rugged. They were soldiers. They keep vigil. They were alert. They watched over their flock, and sprang to defend them at all cost. They were far from the sweet and soft image that we have today. We know that from Jesus: at all cost means his life, dying for the sake of his flock.
I know you might find this very repulsive. Or you might be uncomfortable with this image. But faith is not about being comfortable. The cross isn’t. Faith is not about being nice all the time. Sometimes, when we are right, we have to be angry. Many people are nice, but unprincipled. They will not fight and stand to their principles when threatened. Why? Because they erroneously believe that Christianity is about being nice even to those who are obviously predators of the weak in society.
Christianity then is about being tough and principled.