Sunday January 17, 2010
4:00 pm - Saint Thomas Church
Do You Love Me?
It was my first visit to a nearby pub a few years ago, when I said to my luncheon companion that I thought I’d order shepherd’s pie. “That’s not authentic shepherd’s pie,” he said to me, knowingly and authoritatively; “it’s made with ground beef. Real shepherd’s pie is made with lamb.” I nodded my acquiescence to his wisdom, and ordered something else; I do prefer lamb to ground beef. It was only several months later that the penny dropped. Shepherds take care of sheep: wouldn’t there be something wrong if shepherd’s pie contained the meat of the very animal the shepherd was supposed to protect? (It occurs to me now—free recipe—that real shepherd’s pie might fittingly be made with wolf!)
In the church we think of shepherds as an image for bishops and other ordained clergy, but anciently the image was common for rulers of whatever sort. The kings of Israel, for instance, were called shepherds. And just like today, back then the charge was made that the rulers, the shepherds, were failing in their job. Ezekiel, for instance, at the beginning of the 6th century B.C., prophesies “against the shepherds of Israel” that they have been feeding themselves. “Should not shepherds feed the sheep?” Ezekiel asks rhetorically. “You [shepherds] eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep” [Ezek 34:2-4]. The result of bad rulers is that the flock is scattered, social identity is destroyed, and all those basic human goods that come from our living together cannot be had.
Why is it that “shepherds,” those who are in positions from which they are supposed to help the people be the people—why is it that they tend to turn from their appropriate role and instead use their powers and the opportunity of their position for their own gain? Not every shepherd does this, and perhaps many or most shepherds a good deal of the time do not do this: yet it is undeniable that there is this tendency, and there has always been this tendency, to turn from being a shepherd for the sake of the sheep, to being a shepherd for the sake of oneself. And the social and political consequences are devastating.
Christianity has traditionally explained this tendency as the consequence of a corruption of our human race that occurred way back when we were just getting started. Yet that corruption has its way with every human being, whether we have political authority or not. So it is interesting that in Ezekiel chapter 34 the corruption is noticed particularly in the rulers, who are blamed for the consequences of their infidelity, consequences that fall heavily upon the people. The “sheep” are not innocent, but they are nonetheless the object of God’s prophetic concern because of their suffering—the loss of social integrity. The sheep are “scattered,” and the shepherd was supposed to prevent that.
Why does the prophet speak against the bad shepherds? It is because God, who loves the sheep, will not see them abandoned. Just so we get a wonderful passage, this evening’s first reading, in which the Lord says that he himself will enter into the story and become the shepherd. The language is emphatic, exciting, and deeply hopeful. “I, I myself will search for my sheep,” he says; “I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered. . . . I will feed them . . . they shall lie down in good grazing land. . . . I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep. . . . I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the crippled, and I will strengthen the weak” [Ezek 34:11-16]. The Lord by his own action will restore the human community of mutual love, the community he always intended for his people. The Lord will enter in and become a protagonist in the story of which he is the author.
It is a promise that the Lord fulfills in Jesus, who enters into the human story as a creature among creatures. He does it because of his unceasing love for the sheep. The reason God became man, the reason the divine person of the Word took on human nature and lived amongst us, is because God could not stand it to see his sheep scattered.
He did it for love. God desires, for reasons beyond our ken, not just to have creatures, but to have free creatures who love him in return. Improbable as it may seem, God wants to live in friendship with us. Is it possible for us to love him in return? Is love for God something that a human being can confess? Simon Peter, one of his disciples, figured out rather early that Jesus was the Christ, the anointed one, the Son of God. But he did not understand that Jesus had to die. When Jesus was arrested, Simon Peter was three times asked if he knew Jesus. And he three times said no. Can Simon Peter, with the brains he has and his history of cowardice under fire—can Simon Peter love Jesus? Jesus takes him on a short walk down memory lane. This comes after the resurrection, and we may imagine them going off alone. On memory lane the question is about love. “Do you love me?” —Jesus asks this, with slight variations of language, three times, and Simon confesses that he does, three times. In this way Jesus restores Simon Peter to his discipleship. Then he says to him: “Feed my sheep.”
Do you see what we have? A human race lost like scattered sheep because our shepherds have proven false; the Son of God entering into history in order to be the shepherd who will find the scattered sheep and restore them to true human communion; and that Son of God asking Peter, our representative, whether we love him.
There is, finally, the matter of Jesus’ command: “Feed my sheep.” It may comfort us to note that Peter, who really is our representative, did not have to confess immediately that he loved the sheep. He was given the assignment to feed them, and he could not help but know that Jesus loved them. But the confession of Peter’s love was solicited only for Jesus himself.
God has given us the Good Shepherd whose loving concern is to gather us into his fold. When we love him, he shares a portion of his shepherdly task with us. It is a sharing that is manifest, to take one instance, in our response to the devastation of this week’s earthquake in Haiti. If we love Jesus, we share in what Jesus does: “Feed my sheep.” But why do we love Jesus? Because in him the Lord has entered into our human story to be the Good Shepherd scattered human beings so desperately need.¹
¹I recommend the theological commentary on Ezekiel by Robert W. Jenson.