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The Good Shepherd

April 15, 2016

The imagery of this week’s texts are images of the Good Shepherd.[1] A painting by James Tissot called The Good Shepherd, is in the permanent collection of the Brooklyn Museum. Tissot depicts the shepherd emerging from an outcropping of boulders with a lamb around his neck, that he rescued from the rugged terrain. I like this painting because it reminds me that every time I wander off, Jesus, my shepherd, will come and get me and bring me back to safety. No matter how deep the water I find myself in, or how rocky the terrain, he will come for me. He will never abandon me.

God is Our Shepherd in Life and in Death

In his book, A Shepherd Looks at the 23rd Psalm, Philip Keller tells us that the rod and the staff are two separate tools, which is borne out by the text: “Your rod and your staff they comfort me.” (Psalm 23:4) The rod is made from a hard wood, with a club carved at one end. Shepherd boys spend hours “practicing with this club, learning how to throw it with amazing speed and accuracy. It becomes his main weapon of defence for both himself and his sheep.” (Keller, A Shepherd Looks at the 23rd Psalm (1970, Zondervan, p. 83). The rod has several other uses, including disciplining and correcting wandering sheep. The rod is a metaphor for the Word of God, “which we can count on again and again to counter the assaults and attacks of Satan.” (p. 88).

Keller describes the staff, as “a long, slender stick, often with a crook or hook on one end.”   The staff has three primary uses: to lift a newborn lamb to return it to it’s mother if they are separated (so that she will not reject it with the odor of humans on it); to catch individual sheep to examine them; and to gently guide the sheep. Keller likens the staff to the Holy Spirit, the comforter, who comes alongside us to comfort and help us. (pp. 89-90).   Like the shepherd’s rod and staff, which protect and comfort the sheep, God’s Word and the Holy Spirit protect and comfort us throughout our lives, even as we walk through life’s darkest valleys, and the final valley of the shadow of death.

Ten years ago today, my husband and I sat with a dying friend, Charlotte Crabtree. I will never forget Bob’s reading of Psalm 23 to her that Saturday afternoon, as the sunlight streamed in through the window. Charlotte did not appear to be conscious, but she had a peaceful expression on her face. After he read Psalm 23, we prayed the Lord’s Prayer, and left her. We learned later from another friend, who we saw in the parking lot as we were leaving, that she died right after we left. Charlotte was a UCLA professor in the education department. She worked for many years writing textbooks and teaching prospective teachers. Charlotte taught me even as she was taking her last breath. She taught me that God is with us when we pass through the dark valley of death to bring us safely to the other side to be with him.

The epistle depicts God as both the lamb and the shepherd: “For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will lead them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7:17). This passage promises us relief from our earthly pain and suffering, when Jesus leads us to eternal life. I believe that Charlotte was relieved of her pain that spring day, when she came face to face with her Maker.

 The Pastor as the Good Shepherd

In the first lesson, Luke reports on Paul’s speech to the Ephesian pastors. The pastors are shepherds over the flocks for which the Holy Spirit has made them responsible. He tells them to “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock.” (Acts 20: 28). Pastors are to take care of their own spiritual needs first, so that they can minister to their flock. This is their first duty. John Stott points out that “pastors will be more diligent in their ministry if they remember that their flock is the church of God, which he bought with his own blood” (Stott, The Message of Acts (1990) InterVarsity Press, p. 327)(emphasis original). Their second duty is to watch for “the fierce wolves [that] will come in among you not sparing the flock” (Acts 20: 29).

Jesus as the Good Shepherd

The gospel text describes an event when Jesus was teaching in the temple, in the winter during the Feast of Dedication, the present day Feast of Lights, or Hanukkah. The people said: “If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe . . . you do not believe because you are not part of my flock. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me . . . I and the Father are one.” (John 10: 24-30). This is the most definitive statement that Jesus ever made of his divinity. He was not merely a good teacher. He is God.

Listen with the ear of your heart[2], and you will hear the shepherd calling you to come back. Go to him who protects and comforts you–the Good Shepherd.

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan


[1] This week’s Scripture readings are Psalm 23; Acts 20:17-35; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30.

[2] From the Prologue to the Rule of St. Benedict: “Listen, my son, to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart.”

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