The Good Shepherd is one of the most beautiful images of Jesus in the Gospels. It is an image which has brought consolation to people across the ages. It is a fulfilment of one of the oldest promises of God to Israel.
Sometime back, I ended up watching far too many episodes continuously of a TV series boxset than I would like to admit. Apologies to the 24 fans out there, but having finished the first season, I realised this was 24 hours of my life which I will never get back. Needless to say, I forgot everything about it as quickly as possible. But one scene remained in my mind. By itself, it was simple enough to miss because of its ordinariness. It seemed to capture a very real moment of life. In one episode, Jack Bauer’s teenage daughter gets kidnapped. She is shown terribly anxious, pacing up and down in her cell wondering what is going to happen to her. She is fully aware of the dangers. She could be killed and even otherwise, her captors could do anything they pleased with her. Unbeknownst to her, her mother has also been captured and she is thrown into the same cell with her daughter. They are delighted to be united. As they sit down and her mom holds her, she falls asleep on her mother’s lap. This is the same girl who was overburdened with anxiety a moment before. What had actually changed now? The dangers still surround them. Her mother is as vulnerable and powerless as she is. And she is old enough to know all this. Yet, the presence and comfort of her mother, who loves her, makes all the difference. In the middle of the clear and present danger, she has peace.
I remember that today as we read this passage about the Good Shepherd. In v.9, Jesus says, “I am the gate. He who comes in by me will be safe”. To be safe is something we all desire. More than a desire, it is really a need, more primal than food, clothing and shelter. Without a sense of safety, no other desire can begin to find expression. Hannah Arendt was a philosopher who came back to this question repeatedly. She was a German born, Jew who narrowly escaped the Nazis. Witnessing first hand a whole people who could lose everything they had, the idea of safety or security was naturally one that was important to her. She came up with the notion of a ‘right to have rights’. Even before we speak of human rights, there ought to be an enabler of those rights – a community, which could be home, which guaranteed one those rights. Those who were political prisoners, refugees or stateless could find their every other right was simply useless. Her book, The Origins of Totalitarianism captured some of her most influential contributions in this field. Most of us, even in these decades which have seen people displaced from their homes and countries in record numbers, might not have experienced such conditions personally – thanks be to God.
Our sense of safety however, can be violated in other ways. We might know people whose homes have been burgled. It usually leaves them feeling increasingly anxious. It affects their sleep. They end up feeling unsafe in spite of spending a huge amount of money to increase security. The burglar had broken into their home, not just a building. It was something personal, intimate, a place of belonging. A place where they could be themselves, a place of safety which had been violated. The effects usually amount to a lot more than the act itself. This home could be literal, or it could be metaphorical for any act by which something very personal has been violated. A betrayal in a relationship, deception, acts of abuse and all kinds of variants can do the same and worse. The one who violates could be someone without a face, like a burglar; or they could be someone whose face is known well, but has proven deceptive. In all cases, the thief comes to steal, kill and destroy (v.9) And when he does, no amount of external protection can compensate for it.
Our daily lives are filled with worries. With the pandemic, many people’s jobs have been jeopardised, leaving them anxious about their future. Will they have enough to provide for themselves and those who depend on them? What should I do faced with whatever might come? We can be anxious about the decisions that we will face and even more about the unknown in this time of uncertainty. And of course, on top of all this, our own sins and our guilt weigh heavily on us. All these lurk around like thieves, ready to attack us at any time.
Within all of this vulnerability we constantly find ourselves, the Good Shepherd comes to offer us his own self as our ultimate safety. The beautiful Psalm we hear today lays out one wonderful promise after another. Those who trust in the Shepherd will not want (v.1). He will lead to green pastures; he will give rest amidst the turbulence (v.2). He revives our spirits when we are weighed down (v.3). His voice promises guidance within the myriad choices we might face (v.3). And whatever might be lurking in the darkness we might have to go through; he promises his presence (v.4). His crook is the sign that he keeps us close and his rod which drives the wolves, the brigands away.
He has gone into the deepest recesses of our own terrors, gone into the depths of Hades itself in search of his lost sheep. There is no suffering which we will face which Jesus hasn’t gone into himself. Unlike any measures we can provide which remain external, he is closer to us than we are to ourselves, as Augustineused to say. Which is why, for those who have been wounded and have lost their sense of safety, he can restore their soul. And within all of it, he promises we will find life in abundance, in him (John 10:10).
The Good Shepherd is the one who dies for even his straying sheep. And because of that we can trust him. He becomes our home and welcomes us into the sheepfold, the Church, a place where we can belong. And there, in front of our sins, which accuse us, he lays open a banquet of His own body and blood (v.5). Whatever might come in the future, the Word promises that his goodness and mercy will come with us all our days.
At the very center of the Psalm is the promise that holds everything else together: “You are with me” (v.4). Jesus descended freely into the depths of hell because his Father was with him. He offers the same for his sheep. Every time we come to the Eucharist we are reminded of the same. Four times in the Eucharist, the priest proclaims “The Lord be with you”. This is not the liturgical equivalent of a handshake or a conversation opener. It is the affirmation of one of God’s deepest promises in the Scriptures.
It is a promise which David found to be true in his life. Some scholars believe that David wrote this Psalm not when he was young, but when he was very old and towards the end of his life. He looked back, saw how God had been his Shepherd all through his life, and wondered, ‘Why did I have to doubt?’. This promise comes to you and me. Whatever we might go through this week, the Shepherd will be with us.