Sheep and shepherds are ubiquitous in the Bible. Well, o.k. sheep don’t appear in the first few pages of Genesis, but soon enough in Chapter four, verse 2 (which is on page 6 of my NRSV), we hear that Abel was a keeper of sheep; and after their initial appearance, you can’t move for them – figuratively speaking. In the Ancient Near East sheep and humanity were inseparable. Sheep-keeping has much to commend it of course. Sheep provide wool and meat – they are fairly hardy so can withstand the vagaries of most climates and, if led into the right areas can fend very well for themselves where there’s good grazing and plenty of clean water. They do need some care and attention. Some of them have a tendency to wander off and into dangerous territory. They make delicious prey for wolves and other predators. They sometimes need help in the lambing season and, of course, they’re not very bright!
We’ve discussed this before haven’t we? Here in Gloucestershire we are surrounded by sheep – there’s plenty of opportunity to see them in action – and, although I grant you, they are very good at recognising the food truck and they certainly know their shepherd, in most respects it seems that the lights are on but nobody’s home!
In the Hebrew Scriptures, God was often referred to as the shepherd of God’s people. Kings were routinely likened to shepherds and God’s people to a flock of sheep. Even today, although it is becoming very old fashioned to say so, some congregations are referred to as the flock; and the terms pastor and pastoral stem from this idea too.
The picture of the Good Shepherd is the ideal; a shepherd who is caring, compassionate, brave; ready to save the sheep the sheep at any cost. But there is another picture here too – a picture of the false shepherd. The hired-hand who exploits the flock; sells off sheep for his own gain; doesn’t pay attention; allows the sheep to go astray. A selfish pretender.
So, in our first reading, Jeremiah, speaks ‘truth to power’ and challenges Judah’s leaders. Jeremiah lived in a turbulent period in ancient Judah. The neighbouring power base was shifting. For a hundred years or so the Assyrians had held sway, but their star was on the wane and Babylon was asserting its dominance. Seeking to hold on to power, Assyria formed an uneasy alliance with its former rival, Egypt; hoping to hold back the increasing Babylonian expansion. All this upheaval left the Kings of Judah feeling vulnerable in their tiny nation.
King Josiah, rightly, discerned that Babylon’s star was on the rise; but his confidence came to an untimely end when he was killed, leading his troops to fight the Egyptian army. The Kings who succeeded him, Jehoiakim; Jehoachin and Zedekiah found themselves in a very difficult position. Should they support the rising Babylonians and pay taxes to them or side with their nearer neighbours, Egypt? Which political alliance would be best?
Jehoiakim, Judah’s shepherd chose to withhold tribute from Babylon. Their subsequent anger caused them to invade Jerusalem shortly after Jehoiakim’s death. They took the next King, Jehoiachin into exile along with other upper class leaders of Jerusalem. In his place they installed Zedekiah. This proved to be a mistake though, because he too, proved a less than competent shepherd and again, withheld tribute – against the advice the prophet Jeremiah.
This is the background then, of Jeremiah’s prophecy. He is not so much reading future events as he is interpreting the times. The people of Judah, God’s people, have no good shepherd to look after them. They are at the mercy of bigger, fiercer, predators who would steal and consume them. Many of them of them were, literally stolen, when they were exiled to Babylon and forced to work for the Empire. The shepherds have failed the flock and the sheep are suffering. Jeremiah calls on a new leader to be a good shepherd.
Last week we heard about other leaders, David and Herod, who failed to be good shepherds and so, dishonoured God. This week, that criticism ratchets up a notch.
The reading from Mark this morning follows on from that. Herod fears this new prophet, Jesus, whom he thinks may be John, returned from the dead. And Jesus’ followers are out there too, doing amazing and wonderful things. And here they are, surrounding Jesus and telling him all the things that they had done and taught. Jesus tells them to come away and rest for a while – Jesus, who knows all too well what this work involves knows that they need refreshment and rest – but it seems, they are not allowed to rest for long. As Jesus steps onto the shore, he sees a great crowd – Jesus the Rock Star of Chapter 5, is no longer the rejected prophet of his home town, but the compassionate leader who looks out and sees that here; here are a people like sheep without a shepherd. Like his predecessor Moses, whose phrase he has just borrowed, he sees the need of a vulnerable flock who will perish unless they find a Good Shepherd. Moses uses the sheep without a shepherd, metaphor when he asks God to provide a leader for the people as they finally approach the Promised Land, and Moses has learnt that he will not be with them, because he dishonoured God. Joshua, son of Nun is chosen to lead the people – in Aramaic there is no difference in the names Joshua and Jesus – something that Mark would have known and perhaps that’s why he points out Jesus’ use of Moses words.
He begins to teach them. Then our reading skips over the feeding of 5,000 hungry sheep – sorry, people. Probably because the lectionary leads us to John’s account in the next few weeks – but there is an important juxtaposition here. Herod, the leader who is supposed to shepherd this is concerned only with the state and political power. Herod offers banquets and feeds the leaders of Galilee – Jesus, the true Good shepherd feeds the flock.
So, Jesus and the disciples find themselves once more in the thick of things. Just as shepherds need to help and protect their sheep at all hours of the day and night, so it seems Jesus needs to tend his flock. Amongst his people, the shepherd finds himself in demand, like sheep they crowd around around; listening to his voice.
Here we are. What do these passages have for us today? How might we use these teachings in our own lives?
Well, for those of us who are called upon to lead others – it seems fairly straightforward doesn’t it? Feed the sheep. Look after them. Lead them well. Do not be like those false shepherds, the hired hands that plunder the flock and abuse their position of trust. But, Jesus wants more of us than just to be a flock of sheep. Yes, he is our Good Shepherd – but now that we have heard him; now we know him; he wants us to be shepherds to the flocks and flocks of sheep who don’t know him and have never heard his voice. Jesus’ moves amongst the sheep healing and caring for them – but for his disciples, there’s little respite. They are called to be like the shepherd to do what he does. That’s the imperative. Jesus’ disciples are not like a shepherdless flock. Time is short – at least in Mark’s Gospel, there’s no time to sit around with cozy chats and cups of tea. There’s God’s work to be done, and God has entrusted the disciples with it. They’ve already seen that God can work powerfully in them. It is their task to be Good Shepherds not idle sheep. We are not sheep without a shepherd – all of us are called to follow him; to do what he does. All of us are charged to look after each other; to be compassionate; to exercise wise leadership. You may not be a CEO of a thriving business, but I’m willing to bet you have opportunities in which to take the lead. Once you’re a sheep in Jesus’ flock, there’s no sitting back waiting to be looked after. The Good Shepherd offers a rallying call to follow him and to do what he does.
May we be willing to follow and to take up that challenge. Amen.