Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Good Shepherd

Teaching high school boys, particularly sophomores, is seldom easy. Frequently restive and fidgety, one must move relatively quickly to hold their attention when covering what they might regard as less-than-interesting material. I have always tried my best to "spice up" the class, making connections between theology and philosophy/sociology/psychology/etc., but it can be a struggle.

During my first semester of teaching, when discussing today's Gospel Reading where we find the lovely, if not often kitschy, image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. As you can see from the attached picture, Jesus is often depicted as a cross between Little Bo Peep and Charlton Heston. He is white, carries his little staff, and the sheep are clean and obedient.

What I wanted to impress upon the students was the notion that "Good Shepherd" in Jesus' day would have been an oxymoron. Shepherds were akin to brigands, were regarded with suspicion, and the nature of their job made them frequently unclean. Indeed, we may do better to consider the image of the "Good Shepherd" as being closer to Rooster Cogburn or Han Solo than to Little Bo Peep: grizzled, ever ready for a fight, not necessarily interested in what they are doing so long as they are being remunerated for it.


Anyway, back to sophomore theology class. As I attempted to impress upon the sophomores how this title would have struck listeners as scandalous - for how could one be a good shepherd? - it quickly dawned on me that they weren't quite grasping the concept. Frequently unable to control my filter, I blurted out, "Guys, calling Jesus the Good Shepherd is like calling someone the Good Pimp."

Well, as you can imagine, this was met with great enthusiasm. As it turned out, this little gem was shared at the very end of class. By 8th period, the other sophomore class flooded into my room and the first question asked: "So, Abba Duns, I heard you tell us how Jesus had hookers." Simultaneously amazed and horrified, I moved our discussion of the "Good Shepherd" image to the beginning of class, explained it most carefully, and resolved to re-teach this portion of the lesson the next day to those students who thought I had suggested that Jesus had been involved in sex trafficking.

Lesson Learned: Sophomores do not readily understand metaphors.

I share this anecdote simply because there is always a temptation to romanticize, or domesticate, Jesus Christ. We find some comfort in this image of the gentle shepherd who will risk his life to rescue us from harm. Yet we should not lose sight that the image is invested with great meaning, that the idea of the "Good Shepherd" would have been somewhat unthinkable to 1st century listeners, and that John the Evangelist gives us yet another way in which Jesus subverts common understanding and prejudice.

Today, it may help us to recall the 'wild' and 'untamed' side of Jesus. Resist domesticating him, making him into some sort of toothless teddy bear and, instead, allow the mystery of the one who stands at the frontier of society to pierce us in our hearts. Do we have the courage to follow this figure, the audacity to put ourselves under the tutelage of the One who subverts our expectations and whose tutelage leads us back to the Father's fold?


5 comments:

Anji said...

I'm disappointed with your idea of a shepherd!

My father was a shepherd when I was small and he was gentle and devoted to his shepp and lambs. When I first heard the story of the Good Shepherd when I was at school I knew it already - I had been with my father out searching for lost sheep. He did carry the sheep home on his shoulders!
(The story of the Good Shepherd still has a very special place in my heart)

My future son-in-law once spent the summer up on the pyrénées mountains as a shepherd and he is a gentle, kind person too.

I see you are from the U.S. Perhaps life was/is harder for shepherds where you come from?

Ryan Duns, SJ said...

Anji,

This isn't based on personal experience, nor is it an indictment of 20th century shepherding. It's simply calling attention to the fact that "good shepherd" was a tough image to take in Jesus' day.

Anonymous said...

I don't know anything about shepherds, but I am a professional historian. Admittedly, I'm not an expert on the ancient Mediterranean, but I've certainly read a thing or two about the ancient world and this claim doesn't sound immediately plausible to me. Do you have a citation for a source I could look at?

Ryan Duns, SJ said...

http://www.jibe-edu.org/clientImages/28237/JCJournalArticles/thegoodshepherd.pdf

You might also look up the text by Malina and Rohrbaugh on the social dimensions of Jesus' world.

libbiali said...

I've heard this kind of thing more than once, but like the poster above I'm unconvinced. "Good shepherd" is actually a very ancient epithet, used by Sumerian kings.