“Jesus had compassion on them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd.”
Sermon preached by the Reverend Dr Zachary Guiliano
I feel a certain sense of deja-vu coming before you this morning. The last time I preached, back in June, the texts were all about plants: vines, mustard seeds, other vegetal figures of speech. Out of these, I chose to speak about the cedar of Lebanon, as an image of vitality, beauty, and fruitfulness.
Today, we have moved on from the botanical to the zoological. We’re on animals now, specifically sheep. Sheep and shepherds abound in the scriptural imagination, like the great flocks that are almost synonymous with the British countryside. Just think of some of the familiar scriptural imagery:
- the parable of the lost sheep, where we are told that God is like a shepherd who will leave behind 99 safe sheep, in order to seek and save one lost little lamb. When he finds it, he takes it up in his arms, and rejoices.
- Jesus’ saying to his disciples “I am the good shepherd…I lay down my life for the sheep.”
- Or even Psalm 23, perhaps the most beloved and well-known of all the psalms.
The Lord is my shepherd; therefore can I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures; and leads me beside still waters
He shall refresh my soul: and guide me in the paths of righteousness for his Name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for you are with me; your rod and your staff comfort me.
All of this bucolic imagery could lend a gauzy, sentimental feel to the Christian faith, like those 20th-century depictions of Jesus standing amid a flock of lambs: smiling, dressed in soft tones, perhaps reaching down to pet a particularly cute little lamb.
Or we could find ourselves lulled into a fairly individualistic piety by some of the language. Think of all those Is and mes in Psalm 23: “You have anointed my head with oil…my cup shall be full.”
Now, I have no desire to speak today against a proper emotional attachment to Jesus the good shepherd, or even to a truly personal trust in God’s great love for each one of us, individually. But we can go overboard with those things, and miss some of the point of the Bible’s language about sheep and shepherds.
In the biblical context, the shepherd was a primary political metaphor for kings, in their role as those divinely approved to gather and govern the people of the world. This is true from many centuries before Christ through to the Roman world.
For example, if you’ve ever been to the British Museum, you can see those great stone carvings from ancient Nineveh, dating from the reign of Ashurbanipal in the seventh century BC. On some of them are artistic reliefs depicting the king as a defender and shepherd, a lion slayer. Being a shepherd, in this context, was no sentimental task. It denoted power and rule.
Inscriptions from that time also directly relate a king’s identity and governance to his relationship with one or more of the gods, perhaps Marduk or Enlil. The shepherd-king reigned as a sort of vice-roy and representative of the gods.
It’s in this context, then, that we should hear a text like our OT reading from Jeremiah 23:
Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord. … I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord. Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds over them … and they shall not fear any longer, nor be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord.
Within the biblical narrative and the time addressed by Jeremiah the prophet, the rulers of Israel are described as shepherds: guarding the flock of the Lord God, to whom they are accountable.
But what did they do? Instead of gathering the people, they scattered them; instead of protecting them, they left them defenseless; instead of feeding them, they fed on them rapaciously. They sought only their own good, and not the good of the flock.
Israel’s shepherds drove the nation to ruin with false promises, by infidelity and corruption, through a false confidence in their own strength. The shepherds forgot in whose name they ruled, and to whom they were accountable. And so, God says, they would be judged.
This critique of the shepherds, the rulers of Israel, continues through nearly all the books of the prophets. And yet we have to notice that many of them prophesy a coming time when there will be a new shepherd, chosen by God. As we heard from Jeremiah:
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”
This mixed state of ruin and yet expectation and hope is right where our Gospel reading picks up today. Remember that Mark’s Gospel says Jesus and the disciples had gone away in a boat to a deserted place to rest a while, but when they arrived and went ashore, Jesus “ saw a great crowd.” The crowd had run all the way around the lake, they were so desperate to stay with Jesus. And Scripture says Jesus
had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd, and he began to teach them many things.
After many hundreds of years, years of anguish and toil, of oppression under foreign rulers, still the people were like sheep without a shepherd: scattered, defenseless, starving, sick, wasted and weary. Jesus saw them in all their distress, and he had compassion on them. His heart was moved, his soul was troubled, and even in his own weariness, Jesus taught and healed and fed.
We see clearly here that Jesus Christ is the shepherd God promised through Jeremiah and all the prophets. He is “the righteous Branch” that the Lord promised he would raise up for David. Jesus Christ came “to reign as a king and deal wisely,” to “execute justice and righteousness.” In his days, “Judah would be saved and Israel live in safety,” because he would deliver all God’s people from the bondage of sin and death. And he was not only the promised shepherd-king, but he was God in the flesh, come personally for his people. He would open the way for them to be one again, gathering them around himself.
If all Jesus had done were this, fulfilled this promise to Israel, it would have been wonderful, a story for all ages. But God always sought to move through Israel to all the nations. For like Israel, the nations were lost, scattered, in need. As St Paul says in the second chapter of the letter to the Ephesians,
remember that at one time you Gentiles … were without Christ, foreigners to the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one… [he has created] in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace.
“In Christ, there is neither Jew nor Gentile”; rather, there is “one flock and one shepherd,” one new humanity. In Christ, no one is far off or a foreigner or stranger. We have all been brought near to each other and to God, reconciled by Christ’s body broken on the cross on our behalf. In Christ, we are all gathered and protected, fed “in a green pasture and led forth by still waters.”
Here we are. Look around you. Know that you are surrounded by lost lambs, reunited to the flock. Know that you are safe and welcome here. Here you can find rest for your soul. Here you will find a table prepared for you, in the midst of enemies and strangers who have become friends and brethren. Here your cup runneth over.
This is who we are because of Christ the good shepherd.
Surely his goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our life: and we will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
Well, what then, friends, family? What do we do…how do we live, if this is who we are and where we are – in this good place, with each other and with God?
Do we hold out our cup as it is running over, and say Keep pouring, God! More for me!? Do we get drunk and comfortable on the goodness of the Lord? Well, maybe a little bit. There’s nothing wrong with delighting in God, who is our true and eternal joy, and enjoying one another’s company. And sometimes, like Christ’s apostles, we need to rest awhile; we need to lie down in green pastures.
But Christ sends us out into the world to bring the bread and the cup to others, to gather others in, so that they to omay rest. This is one way of describing evangelism. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry – yes, he of recent royal wedding fame – likes to describe evangelism this way, in the words of D.T. Niles, a Sri Lankan preacher and evangelist: “Christianity is one beggar telling another beggar where he found bread.”
Have you found bread here? Comfort? Rest? Tell somebody. That’s good news. People lead such difficult lives in this world, and they are looking for help and rest. You don’t have to be complicated about it or imposing or judgmental. Just tell somebody what you’ve found, what being in Church does for you, what Jesus means for you and for us together here as his flock.
For Jesus still looks out on the crowds of this world, rushing about, scattered. And he has compassion on them, because they are sheep without a shepherd. And Jesus still has many things to teach, in word and in deed, through each one of us.