It is a familiar image and one which has entered into contemporary culture in its claims about care and compassion, yet the image of Christ the Good Shepherd is not only taken for granted but often greatly misunderstood. It is not about comfort and coziness as if God is a teddy bear. It is about the far more radical teaching of the Passion and the Resurrection. We forget this in our folly and at our peril.
A year ago, only the Headmaster and I were here for Zoom Chapel, as it were, in the early stages of the COVID-19 lockdown. Like everyone else in Nova Scotia we were in “the valley of the shadow of death” owing to the mad rampage of evil in Portapique that resulted in the worst mass shooting in Canada’s history. The question in Chapel over the last several weeks has been “how do we face dark and difficult things like suffering and death, like sin and evil?” Then and now. And that is very much about how we face ourselves and one another.
The image of Christ the Good Shepherd is located within a tradition of reflection in the Jewish Scriptures and in the cultures of the Middle East, as we now term them, but also connects to a philosophical tradition about the ethical. In a way, the image has become for us quite paradoxical. The paradox is that the image of the good shepherd is comforting only because it is challenging. It opens out to us the essential life of God which is greater than all sin and evil, greater than all suffering and death. Such is the Passion and the Resurrection.
Care and compassion easily become the kindness that kills which is the very opposite of what Psalm 23 teaches and what Christ means by identifying himself as the good shepherd. The image is about sacrificial love, the love which gives of itself and is never exhausted. In relation to the image, we are not merely passive beings. The image challenges us about what moves in our hearts and minds in relation to our commitments and responsibilities towards one another. It is in that sense profoundly ethical.
The playwright, George Bernard Shaw, commenting on the plays of Henrik Ibsen (some of you have read ‘A Doll’s House’), observes that “to treat a person as a means to an end is to deny that person’s right to live.” That is the problem of care and compassion. It easily becomes corrupted to a kind of control over others and in effect using others for our own ends. It becomes a power game in which others are used for our interest. That denies human freedom, human dignity, and human agency. The shepherd imagery is found in the Jewish Scriptures in such figures as King David, the Shepherd-King of Israel, and in the imagery of the prophets and the Psalms such as Psalm 23. Jesus draws upon these images in identifying himself as the good shepherd. But the image also draws upon Ezekiel’s critique of the “false shepherds,” leaders who use people for their own advantage and thus betray their care and responsibilities towards those over whom they rule.
This is Plato’s point in the Republic in countering Thrasymachus’ claim that justice is “the interest of the stronger;” in other words that ‘might equals right.’ The point is that every ruler has to have as a primary concern the good of those over whom he rules. The illustration is that of a shepherd. Plato’s point is that the shepherd is, first and foremost, a shepherd, not a businessman. The care and concern of the shepherd is for the good of the sheep.
Far from being a sentimental image, the image of Christ the Good Shepherd is quite challenging. Jesus grounds the image in his relation to the Father. This suggests something of what Gadamer, a modern German philosopher on Hegel and Plato, calls “the dialogic structure of thinking” itself. There is always a third who walks beside you, as T.S. Eliot notes in The Waste Land. Here the third is the thinking itself which operates between and within thinkers. Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep and am known by mine” and places that reciprocal knowledge in the knowing love of the Father and the Son. “As the Father knoweth me, even so know I the Father” and then says, “and I lay down my life for the sheep.” That sacrifice belongs to the life of God as essential life, the life which is greater than death, greater than sin and evil, the life which goes “through the valley of the shadow of death” for us and with us and in us. Only so can we “fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff comfort me.” The comfort is our being strengthened inwardly by the essential life of God moving and living in us.
How? It can only be by our engagement with these ideas in our thinking and acting through hearing these stories and in contemplating the image of Christ the Good Shepherd, the central icon in the Chapel. It signifies the essential nature of the School’s educational project in promoting dignity and respect for one another through the primacy of the ethical. This is the counter to the projects of exploitation and manipulation that deny the agency and the dignity of one another. The image of Christ the Good Shepherd signals the dignity and agency of our humanity as grounded in the love of God. In complete contrast to the culture of catering to weakness and fragility, the image speaks to our being strengthened inwardly and spiritually. We only live when we live for one another in the love of God.
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, English & ToK teacherChair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy