July 22, 2018

DIMENSIONS OF A GOOD SHEPHERD

BIBLE READINGS
Psalm 23
Jeremiah 23:1-6
Mark 6:30-44, 53-56

REFLECTION

Australia is a nation that is riding on the sheep’s back. At least, it used to. For more than 90 years, from 1871 to 1960, wool was our main export commodity. And those who grew wool became a symbol of what it meant to be a true Australian.

Nowadays however, wool industry has shrunk to about a third of what it used to. But Australia still leads the world in the numbers of sheep owned, second only to China. There are around 75 million sheep in Australia, compared to China who has 175 million. That means, there are roughly three sheep for every person in Australia. This is still a lower ratio than New Zealand with seven sheep to every person.

But Australia is the only country where sheep and those who raise them become a national symbol. In ancient world, sheep and their shepherd did not only have commercial value; they also had spiritual and political value.

In ancient nations, like in Egypt and Mesopotamia, shepherd was a symbol for a god/goddess. Israel was clearly influenced by this tradition. But by calling God as their shepherd, Israel declared that other god/goddess was not their shepherd.[1] God was their one true shepherd who would guide and protect them, taking them to security and prosperity.

Psalm 23 is one of those passages in the Bible that likens God to a shepherd. Today, Psalm 23 has become probably the most well-loved psalm, if not chapter, in the Bible. The Psalm has touched the hearts of not only the people of Israel, but people from all kinds of places and generations.

Now, apparently there are 55 Hebrew words in the Psalm. And, at the very center of the Psalm, namely its 28th word, is the word you in reference to God. Indeed, at the very center of the Psalm is the phrase “you are with me”. Psalm 23 is truly a beautiful poetic description of God’s presence in our life.

At the beginning and the end of the psalm, we also find the word Lord, again in reference to God. This word is one of the few words in the Psalm that is repeated. So we find God in the beginning, the middle, and the end of the Psalm. Likewise, God, our Good Shepherd, is also in the beginning, the middle, and the end of our life. God is there from the very moment when we were born into this world until the time when we leave this world.[2] In the word of an Irish prayer:

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit, Christ when I stand... 

We are indeed surrounded by the love and presence of God. God is present in the ups and downs, mountains and valleys, joy and sorrow, tears of laughter and tears of sadness. God guides, protects, and nurtures us, taking us to life giving sources in our life.

But that is only one meaning of shepherd in the Bible. The image of shepherd in the Bible has not only vertical, but also horizontal aspect. Biblical image of shepherd concerns not only our relationship with God, but also our relationship with other people. We are called to be shepherds to those who are weak and vulnerable and marginalized in this world.

We can see this in our passage in Mark’s Gospel. Here, Jesus was at one of the busiest times in his ministry. He was followed by those who were looking for his help. But these people yearned not only for someone who could heal their physical illnesses; they yearned for someone who could heal their emotional and spiritual illness. They were like sheep who were lost without their shepherds.

Indeed, in ancient time, shepherd was also used as a symbol for kings and rulers. In his famous code, King Hammurabi of Babylon declared that he would make “the people lie down in safe pastures” and he would not “allow anyone to frighten them”.[3] In these words, we hear echoes of Psalm 23.

But the rulers of Israel had completely failed their duty. They concerned only about themselves and their interests. They did not worry about the people whom they were to serve. 

So when Jesus saw the crowd who followed him, he could not turn them away. They were exhausted and hungry after walking on foot to get to the remote place where Jesus was. They were willing to walk a long distance because they were desperate to hear the good news that Jesus preached. They were desperate to find a true shepherd who truly cared about them. They were desperate to find nourishment and guidance that had been denied from them by their leaders.

Indeed, their condition was in sharp contrast to the lavish lifestyle that their leaders enjoyed. Before our reading in Mark’s gospel, we hear about the lavish party that Herod held to celebrate his birthday. He threw the party for his nobles, his military commanders, and the community leaders.[4] But he was completely ignorant to the plight of the ordinary people under his care. 

Herod fit the kind of leaders that, hundreds of years earlier, the prophet Ezekiel, condemned. Then, those who were supposed to be shepherds had led the people astray. But God would raise other people who would become their true shepherds. New generations of leaders would be born; generations who would lead the people authentically. In the words of Moses, God would raise people “who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the Lord may not be like sheep without a shepherd".[5]

Friends, we are these generations of people. We are called to follow in the footsteps of Jesus who cared for the weak and the poor and the vulnerable.

When the disciples tried to send the crowd away to find food themselves, Jesus rebuked them. He reminded his disciples that it was their responsibility to care for the crowd. Likewise, it is our responsibility to care for whoever it is that God has brought into our care. We cannot and shall not pass the buck to others, whether they are agencies or the so called ‘professionals’. God calls each one of us to be shepherd to those who are voiceless, weak, and marginalized in our society. 

So friends, God is the shepherd in our life and we are to be shepherds to others. But there is one more aspect of shepherd in the Bible: we are to become shepherd for ourselves. 

Jesus was fully aware of this. He often spent time alone especially during the busiest time of his ministry. In our reading from Mark, he expected the same thing from his disciples. He asked them to go to a quiet place by themselves to find rest.

Indeed, we are called to care for ourselves first and foremost. If we fail to do this fundamental thing, we will never be able to help other people as effectively as God would want us.

A professor in Princeton Theological Seminary once did an experiment with his students. He asked for volunteers and told them to go to a particular address to deliver an envelope. But they must not be late. If they were, it would negatively affect their final grade.

He then divided the volunteers into three groups. He gave the first group 15 minutes, the second group 45 minutes, and the third group three hours to finish the task.

Unbeknown to them, the professor had asked drama students to stage fake emergency situations along the route that the volunteers would take. One drama student pretended as if he was in great distress by moaning loudly. Another drama student lied face down on the floor as if he was unconscious. The third one faked a seizure.

None of the volunteers from the first group, who were only given 15 minutes to finish the task, stopped to help. Some of the volunteers from the second group, who were given 45 minutes to complete the task, stopped to help. While all of the volunteers from the third group, who were given three hours to do the task, stopped to help. From this experiment, the Professor concluded that being in a state of hurry hindered one’s ministry.[6] Act of compassion will most likely occur when one has enough time to be shared with others. To rest and to look after oneself are thus important for an effective and sustainable work of compassion.

Friends, our Good Shepherd wants us to follow Him and also to lead others who are lost. He also wants us to shepherd ourselves, to let ourselves be renewed by fresh water and green grass.

These three aspects of shepherd are important. Like a chair with three legs cannot stand if one leg is missing, we need to have all three. Only when we are able to find the balance to hold all three in our life that we will have a sustainable and fulfilling life.

Amen.

[1] James K. Mead, Commentary on Psalm 23, www.workingpreacher.org (July 22, 2018)

[2] James K. Mead, Commentary on Psalm 23, www.workingpreacher.org (July 22, 2018)

[3] James K. Mead, Commentary on Psalm 23, www.workingpreacher.org (July 22, 2018)

[4] Mark 6:21

[5] Numbers 27:17

[6] A story from Sermons.com for July 22, 2018