When my kids were still in elementary school, we lived on the coast, just north of Half Moon Bay. We had 3 large dogs at that time. That was quite a handful, but fortunately there was plenty of open space around to just let the dogs run. Yes, I had heard that, occasionally, a coyote or even a mountain lion has been sighted, but I didn’t worry too much – after all, I was the leader of a sizeable pack of quite large dogs; I knew it would take a very bold wild animal to attack them – or me.
But we had friends, a single mom and her son, who was my son’s classmate, who had one very small dog and who would walk in the same area. Their dog was as cute as can be, and his name was Spencer.
Now there were reports that a mountain lion had been spotted just the other day, and I remember having a conversation with that mom. She told me that she felt somewhat nervous walking their dog in the area, but she did it anyway. And she told me that she had given her 7-year-old son very clear instructions what to do if a mountain lion were to cross their path while they were walking the dog, and it was very graphic: take Spencer – the cute, little dog -, throw it at the mountain lion, and run!
In other words, the mom would rather sacrifice their beloved pet than have her child harmed – or get harmed herself. And though this may sound cruel, if you think about it, it makes sense – a pet can be replaced. A human life – never.
But it seems that there are some who are so attached to their four-legged friends that they risk their lives for them – and often perish during the attempt. You may have heard news stories about people jumping into the ocean to go after a dog who’s been swept away by a wave, or folks trying to rescue a dog who’s taken a plunge down a cliff, and in the end, neither the life of the pet or the human can be saved.
As far as we know, people in Jesus’ days didn’t have pets – at least that wasn’t the norm. Yes, the very rich could afford to have an exotic animal like a monkey or even leopards, but that was the exception. The vast majority of people had some domestic animals, which had a purpose – either as sources of wool, milk, eggs, meat and hides, or as working animals, watching the property, catching vermin, carrying burdens or pulling the plow. Consequently, folks did not have a sentimental relationship to the animals they owned.
Listening to today’s lessons, like the beloved Psalm 23 and the gospel lesson from John, we might get the idea that there was this amazing relationship between shepherds and their flocks in biblical times. Psalm 23 alludes that the good shepherd protects his flock with rod and staff against all evil, and in John’s gospel, we hear that the good shepherd even lays down his life for the sheep – as if any good shepherd who cares about the sheep actually would do so.
But reality looked different. Even a good and caring shepherd, even the owner of a flock of sheep would of course not put their own life on the line when his flock was attacked by a predator. They might try to ward off a wild animal with their staff, they might try to deter a predator with a long-distance weapon, like a thrown rock or a slingshot – David, the famed king of Israel who downed Goliath with a slingshot acquired his skills as a shepherd boy – but it would have been foolish to get in the way between predator and prey. Just think about it: if the shepherd is injured or even killed, the whole flock is in danger. Sheep are the only domesticated animals that have lost all their natural instincts – sheep would truly be lost in the wild without their shepherd.
Those who listened to the words of Jesus about the good shepherd laying down his life for the sheep probably were startled, if not shocked – now what sensible shepherd in their right mind would do that? It just doesn’t make any sense to sacrifice one’s life for the life of an animal and to potentially put the entire flock in danger. But this is what Jesus does so well, in his sayings and especially in his parables: to catch his audience off guard. To dumbfound them, to question their way of thinking, to turn their worldview and their expectations upside down. To show them that there is an alternative life to what they think life is all about.
It’s not any different in today’s gospel lesson. What kind of shepherd is this, who lays down his life, who sacrifices himself for the sheep? This kind of dedication even surpasses the dedication of the good shepherd we hear about in Psalm 23, the shepherd who sees that all needs of his flock are taken care off, a shepherd who cares deeply about his flock.
Jesus talks about a radical dedication, a radical love between God and humanity. We are called to trust God and follow God, because God is so radical and does even the irrational and unexpected for us. And Jesus juxtaposes this radical dedication to what we can expect from other things that we tend to follow like sheep – be it people, ideologies, or the idols of our times. No matter how many promises we hear from politicians, military and economic leaders – they cannot and will not save us. Whenever we deal with a system created by and for human beings, there is a flaw in it – since we all are flawed. And the greatest flaw, our original sin, if you will, is to want to be like God – and to put our own needs and desires before anything else.
How often have we seen it that, throughout history, leaders have sacrificed those entrusted to them, their flocks, if you will, for the sake of their own interests? No matter how good human intentions are in the beginning, hubris and greed for more – more power, more money, more influence – have a way of hijacking any noble idea, and systems are eventually corrupted. Even religion is not exempt from corruption – one just has to take a good look at the Christian Church throughout history.
In our day and age and our part of the world, we are tempted each and every day to believe that there is something that or someone who can save us. A strong economy, protectionism, walls, personal wealth, you name it – and we often don’t see how we are manipulated into following idols that at first seem to give us all we desire – but ultimately will lead us as the human race, us as part of God’s creation to destruction. Just take a look at the state of our planet – today is Earth Day, and there is a lot awry with the world we live in just from an environmental standpoint, not to mention from a moral and ethical standpoint.
We are following idols instead of following Christ. And one could ask how we follow Christ, the good and radical shepherd who even lays down his life for us sheep. Many of the early followers interpreted following Christ in a very radical way: that they are called to lay down their lives for their faith and the flock as well. Stephen, Peter, Paul, Andrew – all of these disciples and apostles died for what they believed in. And we have martyrs for the faith in all of history like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr., whose murders we just commemorated this month. For them, it was about giving their lives for the sake of love and compassion for the oppressed and marginalized neighbor, for the flock. They understood: it is never just about our personal relationship with God. It is always about the wellbeing of the entire flock, and it’s worth risking one’s life for it.
We may not feel called to follow Christ that radically, and I don’t think God expects that from us – but the least we can do and are called to do is give our live away, to share it with others according to our gifts, as he heard about in the second lesson from 1st John today. And we are called to follow Christ on the way of radical love, which is embodied by the values Jesus talks about over and over, values that characterize the kingdom of God: peacemaking, humility, compassion, justice, care for the poor, love of neighbor and love of those we perceive as enemies.
We can trust that, even as we share of ourselves, we will not be in want: because there is the good shepherd, who leads us to green pastures and still waters, who is with us in the dark valleys and times of our lives, and who promises us an eternal home. There is the good shepherd who loves us so radically that he even gives his life away for us. Even if we share of ourselves, what is given us by the one who leads us can never be taken from us. In the presence of God and surrounded by our brothers and sisters in Christ, we shall not want – ever.
Photo by Daniel Burka on unsplash.com