It’s been rather quiet on the blog since Easter. I had a week away to recover and then my first Sunday back, which was our patronal, we had a visiting preacher. So, last Sunday was my first sermon since Easter Day. Here it is.
Look at any society and you’ll find groups of people doing particular jobs that the rest of that society looks down upon. We look down upon them, make jokes about them, laugh at them. And sometimes even, necessary though the job may be, there is a group that attracts downright hostility. It’s a bit unfair really. These jobs all have to be done – but we all know what people think about them. Many jobs fail the ‘party test.’ There are simply certain jobs where you dread being asked what you do at a party because you know what the reaction is going to be. Where people, instead of saying, “That must be awfully interesting – tell me more!” instead change the subject. Try telling people you’re an estate agent! Or a lawyer! Even worse – try telling people you don’t know at a party that you’re a vicar and see what the reaction is. It’s a very effective conversation stopper.
An aside here – the curate I live with reminded me afterwards what I used to say at parties early in my ministry. For those who don’t know, I spent many years as a full-time lay Church Army evangelist in the Church of England before being ordained as a Church Army priest. There was no point saying to anyone at a party, “I’m a Church Army officer,” since the usual response was “What?” So, I used to say “I’m an evangelist,” at which point people often backed away with a look of deep suspicion and the obvious fear that I might try to convert them!
Particular professions, of course, also have those who are the target for their mockery. In the church it’s archdeacons. I understand that in orchestras it’s viola players who are the butt of everyone else’s jokes.
And then, of course, there are those jobs that attract not just jokes but downright hostility. Just ask anyone what they think of bankers!
In first century Palestine there were two groups that attracted downright hostility. One was tax-collectors – so not much has changed over two thousand years! Then it was because tax-collectors worked on behalf of the Romans – they were collaborators – and they also creamed a little off the top for themselves. The other group was shepherds! For many people in first-century Palestine, shepherds were despised and regarded with suspicion. Just as some groups today on the margins of society are feared because they are all cast as thieves or hooligans or drunks, however much they don’t deserve such condemnation, so first-century shepherds were considered to be on the margins of society. Some were hired hands who deliberately allowed their sheep to graze on other people’s land and stole wool, milk and lambs from the flock, so all shepherds tended to be cast as villains. Also, because of the nature of their work, shepherds weren’t able to fulfil their sabbath duties and attend synagogue, so they were seen as irreligious and lawbreakers. Even though they were indispensible for everyone needed the by-products from the sheep – wool and meat and so on.
How typical of Jesus to use the image of someone despised by polite society and turn that image on its head. By describing himself as the Good Shepherd and implying that the religious leaders of the day were hired hands who cared nothing for the flock, Jesus shows the lack of commitment by those whose sole motivation was to improve their own position in society. Jesus takes the image to its extremes by describing how hired hands flee at the first sign of trouble. By contrast, he himself is prepared to lay down his life in order to save the sheep. He makes it very clear that he chooses this course of action. His death is not the result of unfortunate circumstances which sweep him along without his will, but is a deliberate decision by Jesus.
And Jesus goes on to explain, following on from today’s gospel, that he lays down his life in order to take it up again. And with the benefit of hindsight, we know that his new life after death was radiant and amazing.
But how does that save human beings? It does, of course, mean that we can look forward to a radiant new life after death, but perhaps it means more than that. Jesus gave any possibility of wealth, of status, of power and compared his role to that of the most lowly and despised in society – a shepherd. Perhaps Jesus is saying that if we love and trust God enough to give up our status and power and wealth, however lowly that might be, in order to face trouble and conflict rather than evade it, we will discover an amazing new quality of life right now.
Jesus takes and applies to himself this most despised of characters in the society of the time – a shepherd. And he shows how as a shepherd he protects and cares for the sheep in his charge – you and me. And as those called to follow his example we too have to become shepherds to those around us. Shepherds to those in our care, but also shepherds to those who have no-one to care for them. Like Jesus the good shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep, we too must protect those in our care from all that threatens them. And we need to realise that being a shepherd means taking on a role that others despise, accepting the reality of a lowly place in society, recognising that power and wealth and status are not important, and that we may have to put up with the ridicule, the mocking, the scorn that Jesus endured when he laid down his life for his sheep.
Jesus chose to lay down his life for us, showing us that if we too trust God, by facing our own dangers (whatever they might be) rather than evading them, even though this might damage our status or wealth, we too will discover our own resurrection not just in the life to come but here and now in this life.