The Lord is my shepherd . . . (Psalm 23:1).
First, I’m defensive and a little bit angry. Then I feel foolish, as if I should have seen what someone else has so deftly pointed out. And then finally I step back and take an honest look at my own opinion and make an effort to evaluate the contrasting opinion based on its merits.
That’s what I hope I’m doing now – honestly evaluating, thinking things through. Since reading a nationally known pastor’s outright dismissal of the “shepherd” as a model for what pastors do, I’ve had to negotiate the angry, foolish, thoughtful cycle of idea grief. I’m still not sure I’m where I need to be with the whole thing.
The words that troubled me are in print, so I’m able to review them and listen to them over and over again, trying to make sure I’m hearing what was really said. This highly regarded teacher is someone who I greatly respect. I listen to his podcast. So when he said in an interview that the word “shepherd” was irrelevant, he got my attention. Here’s the quote, admittedly removed from context:
“That word [shepherd] needs to go away. Jesus talked about shepherds because there was one over there in a pasture he could point to . . . I’ve never seen a flock. I’ve never spent five minutes with a shepherd. It was culturally relevant in the time of Jesus but it’s not culturally relevant anymore.” (Leadership Journal, May 28, 2007).
I get that. I claim little to no experience with shepherds or flocks of livestock of any kind. In my first church in Oklahoma I knew that several of my members owned cows, but I never actually had interaction with their cattle. On my recent trip to the Holy Land – an ideal place for getting first-hand knowledge of biblical images and metaphors – the shepherds I saw were off at a distance. I do have a good picture from one of my fellow pilgrims of a shepherd with whom we had some up-close contact, but the picture is all I have of that experience.
Shepherds are not easily found in metro-Atlanta. But while I acknowledge the truth of what this fellow-pastor says, I just can’t reach his conclusion.
For one thing, his position elevates personal experience to an unworthy height while it sells people short. Meaningful knowledge cannot be tethered to what I myself have seen and done. It is entirely possible affirm as “true” something that is alien to my own life experience. My own story can never be an adequate measure of what is worthy and helpful. And it is also possible that intelligent people are capable of comprehending the meaning of a metaphor that is foreign to their own time and culture.
Jesus didn’t use the word “shepherd” because there was one in a field that he could see and point to. Jesus used “shepherd” because he had read Isaiah and the Psalms. The concept came to him from Israel’s history, not a Judean hillside.
But beyond that there is this practical matter. If you jettison the biblical image of a “shepherd” what will you replace it with? Is there anything that we can see and identify that offers a suitable and adequate substitute the Biblical image? What speaks most powerfully to the deepest needs of our life?
The Lord is . . . my adviser? We need far more than advice. The Lord is . . . my boss? That hardly stirs our affections. The Lord is . . . my CEO? These days that stirs nothing but disdain and distrust. The Lord is my . . . coach? That might get at what we need. Personal coaching is big these days. The Lord is my . . . counselor? Maybe – but good counselors pay close attention to boundaries. The shepherd risks his life for the sheep. Counselor is close, but not quite there.
Maybe what we need is exactly what Psalm 23 says. We need a shepherd.
How do you see it? Why does it matter that Jesus is a “good shepherd?” Could he meet you in the details of your life as something else?
Lord Jesus, you called yourself a good shepherd. While the image is strange to us, we know you in what you do with us – the way you guide us and seek us out when lost and lead us to what will sustain us and give us life. We will not fight over words. We only seek to follow you as you do your work among us by your Holy Spirit. Do that work today, we pray. Amen.