The Good Shepherd Sunday (April 30, 2023): Untangling the Ambiguity of a Parable

[Meltdown of Hired Herders vs. Caring for the Sheep of the Good Shepherd]
(The Rev. Dr. John T. Mathew, The United Church of Canada)

The gospel of John records a parable of the Good Shepherd; it is all about “us” – the faithful flock fenced in a comfortably secure paddock in a hostile neighbourhood with thieves and elusive predators stalking us, day and night. The Good Shepherd has a few hired herders on duty so that the sheep may live in harmony.

Many disillusioned adherents are on a hair-trigger temper with no desire to make an informed decision or deal with rage. The singularintention here is to focus on the goodness of Jesus; however the enormity of unhinged herders and their damaging baggage might eclipse it!The goodness of Jesus has been drowned by mediocre herders! A corrupt leader or an insurmountable social issue may prompt people to move on. It is impossible for a morally culpable person to salvage the trust of the community. This parable demystifies bogus assumptions of self-proclaimed herders. A designated position or a college diploma will not generate the fire in the belly to realize the shepherd threshold. No one can embezzle Jesus’ title as the Good Shepherd.

“I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand, and not a shepherd, who is not the owner of the sheep, sees the wolf coming, and leaves the sheep and flees; he flees because he is a hired hand and does not care about the sheep. (John 10). Thomas Aquinas went into detail:“Know the difference between a good and a bad shepherd: the good shepherd cares for the welfare of his flock, but the bad shepherd cares only for his own welfare”.

Albeit, St. John is not the primary source, the one-offJohannine use of exclusionary ‘I AM’ affirmations merits consideration. An image of the Good Shepherd should deeply concern those who feel called and are commissioned as hired herders to serve people. Remember herders are not shepherds but clearly hired coolies for an ephemeral task. For centuries, we have been guided by the assumption that church is singularly of the people, by the people and for the people. However, in the real world, church has been kept under control by hired herders for their own purposes.

Openly this parable grants an exegetist permission to venture into new terrain. Jesus is the only apotheosis of the title ‘Good Shepherd.’Why? Because he said so loud and clear. The self-titled “good” shepherd in the parable is Jesus – no one else is the Good Shepherd – from the most ceremoniouslysovereign head honcho of the largest denomination to the unsung luminary at a local community of faith, all portly church herdersin prismaticvestments- patriarchs, popes, moderators, archbishops, primates, televangelists etc. arenothing more than hired herders summoned to care for the flock. Does the churchof the “Gentle Jesus meek and mild”really need, unless there are germane upsides, baroque ecclesiastical titles such as “His Holiness,” ‘Holy Father,”“His Beatitude,”“His Eminence,”“Most Reverend”very much like Kori bustards, howler monkeys, frigatebirds and puff adders – stretchy snakes increase in size to scare off potential predators?

We trail picky penchants to capture the meaning of life. Some may use images, metaphors and ancient aphorisms to figure out fundamental lessons and purposes of life. Jesus used parables to help his listeners adhere to his instructions and examples of public service of caring for the community. Some were so distracted that Jesus had to leave people including his disciples thrown off balance.

We choose our own perspectives, vantage grounds. It is ingrained in our nature to cover up secrets, uncover new insights and discover new meanings about life experiences. A desire to discern truth is an ethical necessity. We must rise above and navigate beyond what we learned in primary and high schools when we move on to higher exposures and experiences. It took seven Divinity Schools on both sides of the Atlantic to equitably plumb the twists and turns of one of the most misconstrued commandments, “Love your neighbour as yourself” – with its sharplyshroudedimport for those who are familiar withclannishnuance of this mandate. We must strive to dig up the masked mystery!

Cultures either love or loathe sacred depictions, penates, statues and icons. The image of the Good Shepherd in countryside scenes mustering sheep is a conventional depiction of Jesus. This is the only parable where Jesus owns up his title role. At Cana he did not grandstand as an exceptionaloenologist.He did not boast as an up-and-comingchef when more than five thousand were fed.

The Good Shepherd Sunday, always the fourth Sunday of Easter, is in between two major festivals namely Resurrection and Pentecost.Both Sundays remind believers that Jesus leads us through the gate of salvation. Jesus the Good Shepherd knows, cares for, protects and guides his flock of sheep that listen to his voice and follow him. This metaphor of the shepherd and sheep or the church highlights the sense of security and harmony as well as the need of belonging to the community of faith among his disciples.

A leader must figure out the difference between leading and managing. Unarguably in the beginning Moses was an inventive leader who, when weighed down by too many mundane battles, got tuckered out as a deadbeat manager. Nearly all theologically out-dated denominations get bogged down by tired old chiefs as younger denominations are managed by bureaucrats with no theological guidance and vision.

The story of the church began on the Day of Pentecost. This metaphor highlights the genesis of a movement, critical turning points of its continued presence and influence, to borrow the words of John Newton:‘Through many dangers, toils and snares.”

At the nadir of disgraceful racism in the USA perpetrated by Machiavellian leaders, Jack Holmes demanded Americans to wake up and smell the coffee in his January 18, 2018 article titled “The Death of Shame, or the Rise of Shamelessness?” Our world’s most affluent democracy began to rock under an imprudent leadership. This title enraged me not to engage in a rhetorical scuffle but to take a punt on delving intohurtful leadership meltdown in the church.

In ministry leadership, the minister and the church member are not adversaries but are mutually supporting partners; not competitors but co-dependent team players working together for the same objectives. With the tragic meltdown of leadership, church growth is derailed across the globe.

Many leaders, oblivious to their original goals of public service and unable to identify with anything, forget who they are and struggle with being normal!Aparticipant leader for decades, now I am promoted to the bleachers as a participant viewerto watch the team compete and work together in the arena.Once at a global church event, I ventured to be current with cutting edge issues in theology, ministerial practice, and community and globalaffairs. Without exception clerics from emerging nations were too fixated on touring nearby places, shopping and piling up funds to get the next SUVs. One of them is doing time for money laundering; another one moved to another country to avoid indictment.Law enforcement officers scramble to find (missing in action) MIAbusted bishops.It is imperative that denominations invest in investigations to bring to lightno-nonsenseins and outs of why church leaders go nuclear.
Cardinal George Pell was a saint for some; however, at his funeral held at St. Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney some people were chanting’ Pell go to hell.” Early this year, Francis the 266thPope and the first Latin pope elected head of the largest denomination, celebrated tenth anniversary of his papacy with a mass in the chapel at Santa Marta hotel in Vatican. He, no different from any other political or religious leader, inherited a heap of issues including clergy sex abuse. Nearly all leaders struggle with realistic disconnect between smug contentment and reality. Francis acknowledged, ‘This was my conversion – that’s when the bomb went off when I saw the corruption of many bishops in this’.

Conversions happen in our inward journeys. A smidgen ofxenophobic smugness with which Jesus retorted to a high and drySyrophoenician mother was uncaring:“I have been sent only to the lost sheep of the people of Israel.” The disciples tried to do away with the womanwho had known the spacious scope of Jesus ministry. She helped Jesus expand his mission in order to experience a conversion to welcome her.

Pope Benedict removed some 800 priests.A Roman Catholic bishop in Nova Scotia, charged with the importation of child pornography, was suspended from his priestly functions and laicized by the Pope in 2012. It was a huge letdown for the church in Canada.

William Temple directed his missionaries to India never to read the Magnificat in public! The richest nation on the planet in the 1500s became one of the poorest in the 20th century.Both Archbishop Temple who warned his missionaries to hush up the joyfully liberating song of Mary in India and Patriarch Kirill, using the code “Mikhailov” worked for Soviet intelligence service when he represented the Moscow Patriarchate at the World Council of Churches in Switzerland volunteered to be secret agents of their perfidious hegemonies.The church of Jesus, the Messiah is not an extension of an evil empire.

First, no community of faith is spared from such menacing creatures of maleficence. Therefore, no chance for virtuous posturing. Conversely, an investigation of the sullied leaders does not reek a carte blanche cynicism of demonstrated leadership of dedicated women and men.How would the alleged felons pay when the legal bills keep racking up? From the church coffer? And we need a quick refresher: How would this practice reconcile with the theology of stewardship?

Everyone has bad days; incompetent church leaders stump faithful disciples of Jesus! To church leaders: rest assured that having faithfully served as a conceivably experienced herder in three denominations for 47 years, it is not an occasion for me to take digs at those who follow their blissful calling. On the other hand, honourable leaders, held accountable 24/7 for their conduct, need to be cognizant of the wider society that may lampoon workplace culture. Too many herders in all shades of theological spectrum wade into unethical money laundering with dozens of bank accounts!

In fact, the opposite of good and imaginative leadership is not bad leadership but amateurish direction due to corrupt leadership. We must reclaim our trust in God and regain our confidence in our leaders that they would not default on their calling to serve those on the margins.

There is nothing on earth more beautiful than sheep grazing on hillside pastures. One day in the lambing season, I spent one day with the Affleck father-son team on Te Waipounamu, New Zealand and their 30, 000 sheep and counting. Themost challenging task in the morning was to track down dozens of bummer lambs left behind by the ewes hard at taking care of five hundred lambs plus born the night before. Would caring for two goats for couple of years as well as spending one day withKiwi shepherds and their flock of over thirty thousand sheep – during the lambing season around five hundred more showed up night before! – make me a shepherd? Not quite; just a helping hand for a day to get off the farm utility vehicle to open and close the paddocks.

An eerie incident of hundreds of sheep in the northern Chinese region of Inner Mongolia walked in circles for days in China was in the media in November, 2022! Were they trying to keep warm in the freezing temperatures? Maybe the flock suffer from Listeriosis or Circling Disease! This sinister behaviour of the sheep might offer a few clues about life of religious people, especially the followers of the Galilean rebel rabbi who declared to be the ‘Good Shepherd’.

We keep hearing or reading lines such as ‘God is good’. Such untheological, nervous statements beg questions such as, ‘Was God bad to anyone at anytime?’. My God is good as if God could be/was not so good? God is good all the time!

For some reason, the Gospel narratives lambaste goats and sweet-talk about lambs. Goats are insubordinate while it is easier to push around docile lambs fenced in with their clingy instinct. Any good change is glacially slow but then again, we must bend the arc the right way toward fairness, justice, honesty and truth.

Does this parable goad us to confront the current crisis of leadership?
21st century society is a dreamy generation of people driving too fast to hoard transitory wealth. Many parishes justly prefer an experienced herder ‘with a shepherd’s heart’!Not long ago, an international church contacted me saying that someone in the congregation was so impressed by one of my articles that the search committee urged me to apply for the position of senior minister! They were interested in an experienced, theologically full-loaded minister with a shepherd’s heart, a caring, inspiring servant – a quixotic mandate of an ecclesial chimera – ordained in a mainline denomination who would “live, listen, love and lead us like Jesus”. Despite my boundless alacrity, I listened to the words of wisdom of my wife and asked them to look for Jesus!

Turning the spotlight on God’s paternal care of sustenance, security, shelter and prosperity, David begins his legendary psalm ‘The Lord is my shepherd’. Yet, David described God in human terms as the shepherd.

The herders need to double down on the sheep and leave the fiscal issues to those in charge of stewardship. In the early 1990s I was invited to preach at a New York city parish. And the gracious hosts presented me a cheque which I instantaneously returned with thanks! In the hallway, overjoyed they whispered, “Gosh, it is very first time that a guest preacher returned the cheque”. When Merrill Lynch gladly took care ofthe bills, you are never down-and-out. They appeared lost for words, I reminded them, ‘when Jesus is my shepherd, I’ll not want.’

In the metaphor of flock of sheep and the meltdown of puisne herders of all liturgical colours, theological stances and cultural hues, Jesus, the good shepherd does not give the runaround. After all, they are herders of the ‘great shepherd of the sheep’.

Most establishments are retained by inner circles of monocrats. The church that claims to be driven by the Holy Spirit is no exception. Jesus cherry-picked his twelve disciples; nonetheless he had a top brass of James, John and Peter who witnessed Jesus’ dazzling triumphs and his dismal trials. In order to determine the head honcho, they absurdly fought like faithful Christians in the parking lots trying to reverse the decisions prayerfully made in the sanctuary.

None of the disciples claimed to be shepherds nor did they dare to elevate themselves as sovereign heads of the communities of faith they founded or inherited. Jesus is and was the head of the movement that he founded. The discipleswere given the authority of the church wherever they were sent; however, Jesus is the foundation of the Church.

Too many convoluted herders often find themselves sandbagged by their own delusional dishonesties while the rest are tone-deaf and out of touch with humanity. Hired herders like David Beaton of St. Andrews, the last Scottish Cardinal prior to European Reformation, fetishized his calling to serve the sheep. The church does not have to wear a negative past around its neck like an albatross. Laws are like spider’s webs to trap black flies that let go loudest bellbirds. No matter what denomination, a reckless herder is a pain-in-the-neck born to stir up a fading drama. Thomas Becket grovelled to the mighty and the exalted.

An insightful phrase “ātmā́naṃviddhi” (know thyself) from the Upanishads, which Socrates instructed in Greece two centuries later might be instructive in our strivings to care for others. So,a seminal investigation on the job descriptions of the goodshepherd and his 21st century hired hands may raise more questions than it answers.Most of the religious leaders are drilled, grilled, skilled and dripping wet in antediluvian Skidamarink theologies. The church does not have all the answers for all evils. Its primary purposeis to nudge its adherents on the straight and narrow.

The church needs energetic, visionary and discerning younger leaders – women and men – of a new generation of theologians as the hired hands of Jesus transforming the crisis of leadership. We are at the forefront of a new generation of leaders transforming the way we identify with – and address – the sticky situation of leadership.Rumpus happens in all paddocks however, “thou shalt not hijack the Good News of Jesus for profit”. The issue of flouting norms of ethical behaviour among leaders, who are more interested in horrid horse-trading than ministering to and caring for the people, has always been a rampant scourge. The church must denounce such examples on a cellular level.

Certainly, the church needs more graceful sheep herders with less razzmatazz and more caring and compassion. No intention here to dox church leaders as I am one of them. Life always offers us teachable moments on a silver platter. When we graduated from our Sunday School theology to the brave new world of college and seminary, expressly we opined that we moved on to the amaranthine positions in greener pastures having figured out everything about Jesus’ parables. When the chips are down, we must help one another to spark onwho we really are! We are the sheep of the Good Shepherd in the interim cared for by the hired hands.



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