Jesus, the truth and the light of the world
A shepherd was herding his flock in a remote pasture when suddenly a brand new Jeep Cherokee advanced out of a dust cloud towards him. The driver, a young man in a Brioni suit, Gucci shoes, Ray Ban sunglasses and a YSL tie leaned out of the window and asked our shepherd: “If I can tell you exactly how many sheep you have in your flock, will you give me one?”
The shepherd looks at the yuppie, then at his peacefully grazing flock and calmly answers, “Sure!”
The yuppie parks the car, whips out his notebook, connects it to a cell-phone, surfs to a NASA page on the Internet where he calls up a GPS satellite navigation system, scans the area, opens up a database and some 60 Excel spreadsheets with complex formulas. Finally he prints out a 150 page report on his hi-tech miniaturized printer, turns round to our shepherd and says: “You have here exactly 1586 sheep!”
“This is correct. As agreed, you can take one of the sheep,” says the shepherd. He watches the young man make a selection and bundle it in his Cherokee.
Then he says: “If I can tell you exactly what your business is, will you give me my sheep back?”
“Ok, why not?” answers the young man. “You are a consultant,” says the shepherd.
“This is correct,” says the yuppie, “How did you guess that?”
“Easy,” answers the shepherd. “You turn up here, although nobody called you. You want to be paid for the answer to a question I already knew the solution to; and you don’t have a clue about my business because you took my dog.”
This is probably what is left of what we know about shepherds and sheep: silly jokes! Now, unless you live or had lived for awhile in the countryside, you won’t have have a clue of what a shepherd is o what he does and how he lives. To be honest, we might probably have a quite romanticized idea of that, but the reality is that they are not part of our daily experience anymore.
Then how can we make sense of the allegory we have just heard? Jesus seems to tell us a story that looks very much like a parable, but it actually isn’t. For any Jewish hearer listening to Jesus the reference to God as the good shepherd looking after his flock because the shepherds of Israel fail to feed the sheep, is not a novelty. The word of the prophet Ezekiel strongly resounds in Jesus’ words:
“Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them”. (Ez 34.1-4)
Interestingly every time a text from the prophets Ezekiel and Jeremiah on sheep and shepherds are read out, the people of Israel know that there is a formidable critic towards the establishment, the regimes, their administrators and leaders, and the unjust laws. Why? Because they have become threats to civil and religious liberty. And this reminds us a very important truth about the people of Israel: they look at themselves as a political/religious unity.
In fact, the whole idea of separating the political body of the society from religion is very modern, and certainly false in a way that may lead us to spiritualise the bible and undermine the impact of its meaning and significance on the whole world socially, politically and economically. The reason that keeping religion out of the society would necessarily result in a more peaceful world is not always right.
We need to remind ourselves that Jesus is interested in us as individuals as well as, and maybe far more interested- as community, and society, and world. Jesus is interest in us as political body, where “political” has to be understood in its original meaning and reference from the greek word Polis: the city, which is the place where we live, grow and work as a community, as social and religious unity.
Bearing that in mind, let’s come back to Jesus’ narrative of the good shepherd and try to understand this allegory from the John’s community perspective. We don’t really know what was going on at the time John wrote the gospel, but we can certainly guess that something or someone was troubling his community, which would probably be a situation where a group of believers finds itself cut of from a larger faith group. The John community seems to feel the painful experience of non being at one with the larger social entity, the Jewish people. Unfortunately there is enough material in John’s gospel to bolster the contemporary self-justification of one church group against all others. Claiming to be the most faithful ones to Jesus against the others, it is certainly one of our greatest temptation.
Last Tuesday I heard a magnificent lecture on Luther by Professor Lyndal Roper (Regius Professor of Modern History at the University of Oxford) during a Sion College event. One of the thing she said that struck me more, is that on the celebration of the 500 years of the Reformation in Germany, Luther has become a symbol of Germanism, and essentially of nationalism against Islam.
Looking at the bigger picture, it is interesting to see what’s going on in Europe, the rest of the world at the moment. We are all aware of the Frexit movement in France, Donald Trump in the USA, and we don’t really know yet what Brexit would mean for many million of families in the uk, but as Christians we must ask ourselves whether we treasure Jesus as a principle of unity or a principle of division. If we truly believe that he came to save the world and we are fully allied with him in his mission, then we may have to face the paradox he represents being probably both: a principle of unity for all those who are one in him, and a principle of division for the same ones he wants to keep separated from the world.
We have to be clear with this: no Christian confession or group should indulge lightly in declaring others “outside the fold”. Besides, being of the same fold should be a matter of hope and prayer. We then pledge to have the Spirit of unity, which is the creator of unity. We should be working side by side to build the unity we are meant to achieve. It is, indeed, a great challenge, but this is what it at stake in today’s gospel, which it doesn’t seem to go in the same direction the world is going right now.
Then the question is not: “Who are the shepherds?” The clergy have wrongly applied to themselves the title, when it is clear from the gospel that the only shepherd is the Lord himself. I personally see myself more as a sheepdog then a shepherd, as someone wisely pointed out during an evensong sermon some time ago talking about the role of the clergy in the church. The key question is: “How do we live and place ourselves as Christians in this world with this powerful tension between being part of the Church and separated from the world without excluding the others? How do we keep the unity without building our identity against the stranger, the alien, the different from us? How do we learn to follow the voice of the shepherd and recognise the voice of the false prophet, the stranger?”
“I’m the gate.” -says Jesus- “Anyone who enters through me will be safe”. There is indeed an act of faith to be made. However, the gospel doesn’t invite us to make it individually but as a community. We believe, we have have faith. My individuality doesn’t get lost or blurred into the “community” -the “we”- but rather it encounters herself and its true meaning within it. The Eucharist we celebrate every sunday is more than a pious devotion, is a religious, political, social and economical act of faith. In a sense, that our faith shapes our lives as a whole. This doesn’t certainly give us a straight answer to all the questions the gospel poses today, but it directs us towards the source and light of our longings for unity, justice and a more compassionate and equalitarian world: Jesus, the truth and the light of the world. Amen