There is no avoiding sheep this week. Only the Acts reading omits them, and between the Psalm, Epistle and Gospel we can almost hear (or if you come from a place with a lot of sheep as I do, smell) them...
These sheep however are barely a theme, but more a shared world of images. Sheep are the common motif, but they come in various guises: they are in need of sustenance, of leadership; they are also vulnerable, even victims. Then there are of course also shepherds, and gates, a gatekeeper, robbers, implied slaughterers. Not every sheep has the same needs, nor does every shepherd have the same ambitions. While a preacher or other reader may fasten on the metaphor itself (most obviously the place of Jesus as a shepherd), the real value and challenge of these readings consists of the tensions contained even within the individual lections, where the clichés of sheep and shepherd are qualified or re-worked. God may be a shepherd and we sheep, but not necessarily quite as we might imagine.
The Psalm, which is the oldest text and possibly the most familiar, is not necessarily the best-understood, in that despite its “pastoral” idyll, political imagery is central. While the divine “shepherd” provides for the Davidic hymnodist (himself a king?), he is also a disciplinarian. Some commentators rush to interpret the rod and staff as means of protecting the flock, but these tools are also and especially the means of guiding it. Their use as political symbols is better-known in the ominous Pharaonic imagery of the king with crook and flail. While the use of these against predators may be implied, the direction of the flock along right pathways for its own good—and “for his Name’s sake”—does not happen by GPS, but by use of the stick.
This is not the only reference to pain or struggle in the text; “the valley of the shadow of death,” whose bitter learnings can be redeemed by the destinations to which the shepherd guides, may not be so different in the moment from the impact of rod and staff.
The Psalm thus uses the sheep-shepherd imagery to underscore not just, and notso much, peace and plenty but frailty and dependence. Shepherds in general are assumed to be wielders of the rod, not just providers of pasture. The divine shepherd is no less so, but more reliably a leader whose discipline will lead us to what we need. The relationship thus described might well make the autonomous prosperous westerner (or as my colleague Willie Jennings puts it a little more specifically, the “white self-sufficient man”) uncomfortable. Good.
The last verses shift the metaphor to one of feasting; presumably the “house of the Lord” here, the temple, is also the scene of the festal banquet following a sacrifice. This underlines how the shepherd metaphor was also being used in a benign and celebratory way, if not just as that. After all, feasting in the house of the Lord would typically involve sheep, but in a quite different way... There is some irony here, in the reassurance the unlikely sheep who sings the Psalm will not be prey, but guest.
The passage from 1 Peter also involves a complex although fairly subtle version of the shepherd/sheep metaphor. Opening with the possibility of celebrating unjust suffering, the author quotes from Is 53 (as found in the Greek OT [Septuagint]). On Good Friday, many of us heard from the same Isaiah passage at greater length:
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
And then, more of that “him,” the servant of the Lord:
…he was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.…he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.
The epistle quotes this last verse alone, but the sheep metaphor is implied by the context, and was also explicit earlier in the letter, in the reading for last Sunday (1 Peter 1: 17-23) where the readers are ransomed by the blood of the lamb without blemish. Then we go on to read: “For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.”
Isaiah is thus a sort of hidden bonus reading today. The prophet’s elaboration of the sheep metaphor underlines the vulnerability of the flock, and makes the servant a kind of vicarious sufferer, one among the sheep. 1 Peter takes these ideas and then brings them to a(n explicit) Christological conclusion; we are vulnerable, but Jesus is both the innocent lamb whose blood cleanses, and the shepherd whose guidance we need. So here is the incarnation, in a brief and challenging few verses.
So too the Gospel of course plays with this same world of sheep and shepherds. Jesus is the good shepherd, surely riffing on Ps 23—so a caring shepherd, but not necessarily a “pastoral” one in the often-degraded sense of the word but a disciplinarian—and also the gate, etc.
Yet the lectionary cuts the reading off before the revelation of the real nature of Jesus’ shepherding. For it is in v. 11, after we stop this week, that Jesus’ real pastoral mission is shared: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” This revelation links the Gospel properly even with the Psalm, and especially the Epistle too.
This unfortunate omission—of the punchline in effect—arises because the three-year cycle just provides different chunks of John 10 on this Sunday each year, a shortcoming that goes back to the foundational Roman Catholic version of the lectionary. It is as though just doling out some of the rich language of the Johannine pastoral image is enough, but this is a mistake. Just as in other Johannine “I am” passages, there is a movement from obscurity to relevation through the discourse of Jesus. You can’t get the idea just by thinking about sheep and shepherds. The lectionary framers were much more on their game when they gave us those complete passages from John in Lent, but they messed up here. The point is not the image, but what the Gospel does with it.
What then to do? I see no reason not to extend the reading (probably through v. 15). If this is not favored however, then the intertextual possibilities provide an alternative route to the heart of the matter. Neither the Psalm nor the Epistle merely say “Jesus/God is a shepherd, and we are the sheep.” Both use this imagery, creatively and confrontingly, to address the human condition as sometimes marked by aimlessness and suffering, but present Jesus not merely as a pastor (in whatever sense) or caring leader, but as the one whose solidarity with us extends to sharing our experience and our fate. This is what makes him not just a benevolent despot, but a shepherd to whose voice we should respond.
See Jennings, Willie James. After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2020.
Do you know when the Hebrew ירדפוני (Psalm 23:6) was softened to "follow" from "pursue or chase?" I like the active pursuit of God's mercy, determined to find us (like that lost sheep) and bring us home. Alter uses "pursue" but Coverdale, BCP, and NRSV do not.
Stuck on ירדפוני in Hoboken