April 29, 2012

 

ON UNPACKAGING A BELOVED PARABLE

                                                       Sermon delivered by the Reverend Father Bill Smith
                                           at Holy Faith Episcopal Church, Port St Lucie, on 29 April 2012
 
 Reading in lieu of a reading from the Hebrew Scriptures: Acts of the Apostles 4: 5-12
 Reading from the Psalter:                                                                                    Psalm 23
 Reading from the Gospel:                                                                           John 10: 11-18

 

This is one of those Sundays when the preacher has a choice.  We can go along with the beloved, traditional view of the passages that we have just heard, or we can probe a little, or maybe a lot, and strive to understand what was in the mind of the writers of these passages.  Either way we face a problem.  If we follow the first route, the danger is that since the congregation has heard it all before they will not pay attention – always assuming that congregations do pay attention to the sermon in the first place.  If we follow the second route, the danger is that the members of the congregation do not really want to hear what the preacher feels called upon to teach and so they tune out the words of the sermon, and, again, pay no attention.  Well, at the risk of nobody paying attention, this morning we shall be following the second route.  Perhaps I should offer a prize to the person who does pay attention all the way through and grasps what it is that is being said.  Perhaps I should say that there will be a test. 

The parable of the Good Shepherd is probably the best loved of all the parables of Jesus, and when we couple it with the Twenty-third Psalm, the one psalm that is known by virtually every churchgoer and many non-churchgoers as well, then we are walking on very familiar ground or we shall be trampling over some very romantic, sentimental feelings.  Yet what did Jesus have in mind when he first told this parable?  How would those who heard it from his lips have understood it? 

We should establish who those people were.  They were Jews, brought up in the culture of Ancient Israel and the Hebrew Scriptures.  And it is against that background that we should understand the psalm and the parable.  When Jesus referred to a shepherd he did not have in mind, nor did his listeners, the same image that was planted in our minds when we were children.  In fact, in the setting of the Hebrew Scriptures he and they would not have been thinking about shepherds abiding in the fields keeping watch over their flocks by night.  That’s a nice bit of Victorian-era romanticism and misses the whole point entirely. 

When the writers of the Hebrew Scriptures, whether psalmists or prophets, use the term, “Shepherds”, it is as a simile for “rulers”.  “Shepherds” was how the prophets referred to the various rulers of Israel from David on, with the idea that they should govern as did the sometime shepherd boy David, as described in the last verse of Psalm 78, recognizing that it is the authority of the Lord God that is allowing them to govern. 

The good shepherd, be he king, governor or tribal chieftain, is one who cares for those over whom he exercises authority as does God.  All too often the rulers of those days did not exercise authority in the interests of those committed to their care, but they used that authority to enrich themselves at the expense of those whom they were charged to govern.  The prophet Samuel had warned the people of this when they had first asked for a king to rule over them, and the Hebrew Scriptures recount how from Solomon onwards kings had ruled just as Samuel had predicted.  They aped the rulers of other nations, building palaces, acquiring harems of wives and concubines, living in lavish style, and tithing the people in order to pay for their luxuries.  They would indulge in warfare to aggrandize their positions, again at the expense of those whom they were called upon to care for, demanding their menfolk for their armies, their wealth and even their land, just to satisfy their own ambition. 

I have been around long enough to know that the attitudes of a Solomon still prevail today, although presidents and prime ministers may not have harems numbering in the hundreds and thousands.  But twentieth and twenty-first century history in this country, let alone elsewhere, indicates that those who exercise political leadership seldom leave office poorer than when they entered into their reigns.  We are still plagued by warmongers, adulterers and profiteers – and in the Western democracies we get to elect them!  How few are the candidates for any office in this country and elsewhere who are anything like Jesus of Nazareth! 

In the Palestine of the days of Jesus there were two rulers, two men who might have been called the shepherds of the people.  The first was the Roman Emperor and in particular his agent, Pontius Pilate.  The second was Herod.  The glimpses we have of both these men in the New Testament suggest that neither of them qualified for the title, the Good Shepherd.  Given the opportunity, they both failed to exercise justice on behalf of someone who had been wrongly accused on false evidence of committing a capital offence. 

Pilate and Herod both had more than one residence, whereas Jesus had nowhere that he could call his own where he could lay his head.  Pilate and Herod were surrounded by armed escorts, whereas Jesus had a small company of disciples.  Pilate and Herod could demand taxes and tithes, whereas Jesus relied upon the free-will charity of a small group of women.  Pilate and Herod wined and dined in luxury on produce taken from the vineyards and the fields of the people whom they governed, whereas Jesus gave his blood and his body as the elements of the sacred meal he called upon his followers to share, he turned gallons of water into wine, he fed crowds of four and five thousand.  When Pilate and Herod went forth they were escorted by armed troops to clear the way for them, whereas Jesus walked into the crowds, reaching out to heal the sick, the suffering and even the dead.  Pilate and Herod issued orders that had to be obeyed on pain of imprisonment and death, whereas Jesus taught lessons that were intended to be a way of life. 

When Jesus described himself as the Good Shepherd he was making a political statement.  He was inviting those who heard – and still hear – his words to make a comparison between himself and those who ruled – and rule – over them: whose words and deeds most closely match those of the Lord as described by the psalmist in the Twenty-third Psalm?  And when he described himself as the Good Shepherd he was making the point that every other ruler was not the Good Shepherd and not even a good shepherd, and if they were not good shepherds, then they must be bad shepherds. 

In his day Jesus fulfilled the job description laid out in the Twenty-third Psalm as to how a ruler should rule.  As he pointed out at the end of his ministry, the good ruler is one who serves the people.  Those of us who have been employees all know that the best bosses are those who seek our best interests rather than their own, and it is the same for those who exercise authority of any nature.  We in the West, what was once Christendom, need to look to it that we elect people into office who will see to it that no one is in want, that neighbourhoods are places of peace and quiet, that we are encouraged even when things are not going well socially and economically, and who will introduce programmes that are to the real advantage of all.  They will see to it that people do not live in fear, providing all that is needed in times of disaster.  They will see to it that people do have enough of the proper food to have healthy diets, and that there are no shortages for anyone.  If the rulers achieve this, which is what the Twenty-third Psalm teaches us is the way of the Lord, then the people will declare that goodness and mercy surrounds them at all times. 

The Gospels show us how Jesus lived out the life of the Good Shepherd and the cost that he was prepared to pay as the Good Shepherd.  Those who aspire to any office, in this and any land where the Gospels are read, have no excuse for doing and being any less.