Caring with a Shepherd’s Heart
Psalm 23, John 10:11-18 & 1 John 3:18-24
Fourth Sunday of Easter/11th May 2003
© Reverend Kenneth E. Kovacs
Catonsville Presbyterian Church
The image of the shepherd is near and dear to the hearts of both Jews and Christians. There is no better-known psalm than the twenty-third, most likely written by David, the shepherd who became king, the shepherd-king. Many have this psalm memorized - and for some only the King James Version will do. This psalm with all its majesty and beauty dwells deep within our heart of hearts, it’s tucked away deep within us. It’s a part of us. It provides extraordinary comfort and assurance and hope. It is often read or understood as a petition or plea or a prayer used in difficult situations, used to summon up enough faith in order to believe that Yahweh is indeed my shepherd.
But this is more than just a petition or plea. Hebrew poetry, like Celtic poetry, is making a statement, making a strong non-refutable claim about reality and God. This psalm is a confession, a statement, an affirmation. It’s not “Lord will you please be my shepherd.” The psalmist is a staking a claim on the divine presence. Yahweh - you are my Shepherd. Right now. This shepherd metaphor “evokes a wise, caring, attentive agent who watches over, feeds, and protects a flock that is vulnerable, exposed, dependent, and in need of help,” not unlike the work of a mother.
Yahweh, you are my shepherd. Right now. Therefore, I lack nothing. The psalmist is not pointing to some time in the future when Yahweh will take care of him and provide for his every need. The psalmist is saying at this very moment, here and now, Yahweh, You are my shepherd. You care for my every need, therefore I lack nothing. And because you are watching out for me, I can relax. I can sit beside the still waters. Because I know you are watching out for me, Yahweh, the stress and worry and concern that I carry around when I forget that You’re looking out for me are now gone and my soul has been restored - my soul is healed because I know that I don’t have to fend for myself. And this is good news. Even when I am in the pit of hell and everything seems to be crumbling all around me, I fear no evil. For you are my shepherd – and nothing can harm me. And because you are my shepherd – now and always – there will never come a time when You aren’t watching out for me, caring for me, Yahweh. Whether now or in the life to come, I am yours and you are mine. And nothing is going to change this – nothing, not sin, not evil, not even death itself. Nothing.
The image of Yahweh as shepherd takes on flesh in Jesus who said, “I am the good shepherd.” He is more than a metaphor. He is the real thing. This is a very significant statement. Unfortunately, too often Jesus’ claim has been domesticated and made into something as docile as a well-behaved sheep. “Good” has been equated with “nice.” It’s sometimes (mis)understood as, “I am the nice shepherd.” But “good” doesn’t do justice to the text. It’s not that Jesus is a well-behaved shepherd who really knows how to do his job without offending anyone. The Greek word for “good” is “agathos.” In this text, John reads, “kalos.” Kalos means “noble.” Jesus is really saying, “I am the noble shepherd.” By “noble” Jesus is claiming for himself an identity and authority reserved for Yahweh. “Noble” refers to Jesus’ kingly rule over every other political and social authority. Jesus is being very intentional here. He is placing himself in that long line of shepherd-kings that began with David, who led his people with compassion and with power, with justice and with love. The Old Testament prophets promised that another shepherd-king would come, like David, who would lead the people with equity, justice, and peace. The shepherd is a metaphor of governance. By describing himself as the noble shepherd, Jesus is claiming for himself the very same symbol and image of Yahweh found through the Old Testament.
And not only is Jesus claiming this image for himself, he’s taking upon himself the divine name. Remember when Moses encountered the burning bush on the mountain and the voice summoned him to go to Egypt to liberate the Israelites? Moses said, “Who are you? I don’t even know your name.” That’s when the voice revealed its name. What did the voice say? Tell Pharaoh, “I AM” sent you. I AM is technically the true name of the Living One of Israel, otherwise known as God. In Hebrew it is ‘eyeh ‘asher ‘eyeh and can be translated, “I was who was. I am who I am. I will be who I will be.” (See Exodus 3:13-15) The first letter of each word in the Hebrew is Y-H-W-H (known as the Tetragrammaton), fill in the vowels and you have Yahweh. Yahweh is the true name of the God of Israel. Yahweh’s name actually means I AM. This means God is a verb – the verb To be. Yahweh is not a static noun or like a modifier, an adverb or adjective, but a verb. From this we learn that God’s Being is dynamic, active, and does things. Yahweh has called all things into being and existence itself is sustained by the abiding presence of God’s being. The fact that you are, that you exist, that you can say, “I am,” is because you have been called into being by the One who is I AM. To be created in the image of this God is to participate in the Being of God.
And because God’s name is holy, it should be unpronounceable. Instead of saying Yahweh, Jews then and now, say, Adonai, which mean, “Lord.” When you see LORD capitalized in the Old Testament, the Hebrew word that stands behind it is actually YHWH. So that when the psalmist says, “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.” It’s Yahweh, the great I AM Being itself who is my shepherd.
And then Jesus goes even further. All those “I am” statements in John (“I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25). “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35).) get Jesus into trouble with the authorities because he is claiming the divine name for himself. So not only does Jesus take the shepherd image upon himself, meaning that he will be the true governor of our lives, clearly identifying himself with the God of Israel, but he is claiming that he is divine. He is I AM. So that we come to see that “Jesus is the human repository of all the powers and functions of Israel’s LORD.” “I am the noble shepherd.”
As our noble shepherd, Jesus has taken on the responsibility of caring for our lives. And not only our lives, but the life of the world. His life and work set the standard for our life and work. His life and work set the standard for all those who seek to be shepherds in our lives. And his life and work set the standard for those in authority over us, for they have been given a mandate to care for the needs of the people.
The nobility of our Lord is most evident when we see him caring not only for his own sheep but for the wider world. This text thus sets the pattern for the work of his church. The Christian reaches out and lives in the world (without being defined by it), caring for the needs of all people the way a shepherds tends to his flock. In fact, Jesus says we must not only be concerned about our own flock but other flocks, too. Jesus has many flocks and continues to work for that time when there will be one shepherd and one flock. This text provides a framework for us to reach out to flocks or communities of people who are different or strange or might even make us uncomfortable, even with flocks that don’t look like flocks, in order to bring all the separate flocks into one. Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) said the Christian has a moral obligation to care for the weakest and most vulnerable in society, whether they are Christian or not. This is love lived out in truth and action (1 John 3:18). This text speaks to the inclusive nature of the gospel, and of our need to bring dissimilar people together in order to find a unity in Christ. This is the goal that Jesus himself sets up for himself – not for us – and therefore it is not debatable. “I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd.”
If we are following Jesus, if our wills are aligned with his will, if we are honestly praying, “Thy will be done,” then we should be engaged in similar work. We will succeed sometimes and we will fail most of the time, but our job remains the same: do not stand in the way of the shepherd.
But when we fail in our daily living, even when those who care for us fail in their tasks, even when governments relinquish their responsibility to care for society, when we are not in the will of God, when we get in the way – Jesus is still our shepherd. When we recite the 23rd Psalm or read John 10, we are reminded “that Jesus is our only shepherd, the one whose voice we [alone] must heed, and that we must [also] confess that often we listen to the call of wolves and lazy hirelings,” people who will always lead us astray. When we recite the 23rd Psalm or read John 10, we ascribe to Jesus prerogatives that the state normally takes on for itself. It is not the state but the shepherd Jesus who is to provide for our health; the shepherd Jesus who ensures our security; the shepherd Jesus who protects us and provides for us.” Jesus is watching out for us – he alone restores our souls. We are his and he is ours and nothing can change this fact. “What is your only comfort, in life and in death?” the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) asks us. The answer? “That I belong – body and soul, in life and in death – not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.” This is the Good News! This is the Gospel. Yahweh be praised!
On Yahweh as Shepherd in the Hebrew tradition see Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the New Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1997), p. 259.
See Brueggemann, p. 259.
Hiroshi Obayashi, Agape and History: A Theological Essay on Historical Consciousness (Washington, D. C.: University Press of America, 1981), pp. 75ff. The Hebrew verb hayah (to be) “is an action verb, denoting a decided act of being, becoming and occurring,” whereby “being” is inseparable from “becoming” (p. 80).
Gerard Sloyan, John (Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1988), p. 128.
Cf. the quotation from the worship bulletin cover: “The church is the church only when it exists for others.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, Edited by Eberhard Bethge (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1972), p. 382.
Andrew Warner, “Hooked on War,” The Christian Century, May 3, 2003, p. 22.