The Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year BPsalm 23
1 John 3:16-24
O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
A few years ago in seminary, my cozy idea of the whole sheep/ shepherd metaphor was broken wide open. I was reading a book on mission work in the South Pacific for an assignment, and the author casually mentioned that, in these islands, there are no sheep. Indeed, none of the peoples being evangelized had any idea of what a sheep or a shepherd looks like. Instead, pigs are the mainstay of the island economy. Everyone in that culture raises and eats pork. So when the missionaries translated the scriptures and the liturgy into the native language, they changed “sheep” to “pigs,” and “shepherd” to “pig farmer.” Jesus became the “Pig of God, who takes away the sins of the world” and the 23rd Psalm became, “The Lord is my pig farmer, I shall not want.” Can you imagine a round-bellied pig up in our stained-glass window, instead of the regal-looking Lamb? What about Jesus holding a squirming, squealing pig in his arms, his flowing robes caked in the dirt of the pig-pen?
Now, we could talk about the whole issue of the translation of metaphor, and we could probably rightly complain that it is just plain wrong to translate the Hebrew Scriptures in a way that focuses on pigs, who are considered unclean for Jews. But what interests me today is simply how this jarring translation can shake us out of our traditional sheep/ shepherd rut. We have heard the 23rd Psalm so many times, and we have seen so many paintings and stained-glass windows depicting today’s Gospel, that it is easy to nod complacently when we read about sheep once again today. But what does it mean, deep down, to say that Jesus is the Good Shepherd? What is it about the imagery in Psalm 23 that is so comforting?
When I was a little girl, my parents bought me a gerbil—a boy gerbil, supposedly, whom I named Barnabas, from my favorite Dark Shadows TV show. Imagine my 7-year-old shock when I woke up one morning and peered into the cage, only to find my dear Barnabas as cold and stiff as a board, and a litter of worm-like pink baby gerbils huddled in a corner under the shavings. With their closed eyes and their wrinkly, hairless bodies, I didn’t even know what they were! I cried and poked Barnabas’ lifeless form. My mother ranted about the pet store’s gender deception. But my father—he took it upon himself to save the orphaned babies. Leaping into action, he brought an eye-dropper back from the NASA chemistry lab, and he set his alarm clock to go off every two hours, even at night, in order to carefully squeeze drops of milk into the tiny round mouths. And you know what? These gerbils survived! They grew up rather misshapen, suffering malformed bones from the cow’s milk, but they pretty much lived happy little gerbil lives ever after.
So: what if we rethought Psalm 23 in terms not of pigs, but of baby gerbils? It might go something like this:
“The big hands belong to my master. They take care of my every need. When I’m hungry, they bring a tunnel of warm, sweet milk to my lips, milk that dribbles down over my chin, more milk than my throat can hold. When I’m cold and shivering in a corner of my glass cage, the hands caress my back, urging and guiding me back to the huddle of my brothers and sisters. The hands bring back my life to me. I know that they will be there when I’m hungry. I know that they will warm me when I’m cold. Even in the dark of night, the hands are there. O hands of my master, you rub soothing salve onto the itchy wounds that my nipping brothers inflict on my back. When my stronger sisters push me away from the water bottle, you scatter them with a flick of your fingers until I’ve had my turn. When it’s time to eat, you pursue me around and around in the cage, never giving up until you cradle me in your warm palms. May you always pursue me like this, all the days of my life. May I always dwell within reach of the hands of my master.”
You see, it’s not all about sheep. It’s not the animal that matters. It’s all about the mysterious, loving hands. Psalm 23 is all about the connection, the intimacy, of loving care. It’s about a caregiver who is in control, yet utterly merciful. We read it at sick beds and at funerals because the psalm’s descriptions of rest and nourishment, its reassurance of protection in moments of hardship and despair, are a universal balm to all creatures who must find their way up and down the hills and vales of life in this world.
When Jesus refers to himself as the “Good Shepherd,” he is purposefully calling on the imagery of Psalm 23, imagery that he knows from singing this psalm himself. A better translation of the Greek, however, is, “I am the Model Shepherd.” Yes, Jesus describes himself as the sound and right model of shepherding care: one that he intends for us to imitate. We are not just dumb and hapless sheep milling around in our sheepfold. If Jesus is the “model shepherd” then we are to do as he does. We must be willing to give selflessly to those entrusted to our care, even at the risk of our own lives. We are to connect with them intimately, knowing them by name, caring for them individually.
When Jesus calls himself the “Model Shepherd,” the language of individual comfort found in Psalm 23, expands. Not only am I the precious, comforted creature, alone in the merciful hands of God. I am also a creature in community, a community of beloved creatures, a community larger than I can imagine. Besides Psalm 23, Jesus also knows the shepherd imagery in the book of the prophet Ezekiel. Ezekiel praises God’s shepherd-like care of God’s people, care that resembles my father with those gerbils: God, like a good shepherd, strengthens the weak, heals the sick, binds up the injured, brings back the strayed, seeks the lost. At the same time, Ezekiel condemns the shepherds who keep all the food for themselves, letting the sheep starve. He condemns the harsh shepherds, the ones who let the sheep scatter into dangerous places. Jesus, our model, agrees. Hear the admonition in today's second reading: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?”
As I worked on this sermon, my mind kept being drawn back to the ship of African refugees that wrecked this week in Italian waters, killing some 700 people. My mind kept leaping from sheep, pigs, and gerbils, to the people on these boats. I couldn't think of one without the other. I thought of this boat, and of all the boats that keep coming and coming, despite the danger. I thought of the refugees, relentlessly pursued by war, pursued by hunger, pursued by poverty, and chased by oppression, flowing shoulder to shoulder like a huge flock of sheep across a continent, corralled into rickety fishing boats and led like sheep to the slaughter. I thought of the unscrupulous wolves in shepherds’ clothing who profit from their distress. I thought of the “valley of the shadow of death,” in which the hundreds of women and children found themselves, locked in the hold of a sinking ship. I prayed that they felt the hands of their God cupping them in that darkness.
On the one hand, I find comfort in Psalm 23, for myself, for those who perished on that ship, and for all who suffer. I also find comfort in knowing that Jesus is my shepherd, that he knows each of us by name and that we can recognize his loving voice, even in the dark. On the other hand, I clearly hear the challenge of our “model shepherd,” to love the stranger, to care for the refugee. “I have sheep that do not belong to this fold,” Jesus remind us. “I must bring them also …. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”
If my father can get up every two hours to nourish, drop by drop, a passel of orphaned rodents, trusting that they have lives worth saving, shouldn’t I have the same determination for the orphans and refugees of the world?