Saturday, 25 April 2015

Shepherds old and new

The Good Shepherd by Daniel Bonnell
When I was travelling in our link dioceses in Tanzania earlier this year I had quite a frightening experience when our Jeep had to go through a very large group of angry chanting young men bearing machetes, bows and arrows and sticks. They had formed in order to go and retrieve stolen cattle. Cattle in Tanzania are more than livestock the amount of cattle you have determines not only your wealth but the status and power you yield within your tribe.

Sheep are valuable, whether they belong to a community or an individual. In Tanzania today, and in biblical times, a flock of sheep is an asset for everyday life.  The size of a flock is the visible expression of someone’s wealth.  A prize animal might be slaughtered to feed honoured guests.  Sheep might form part of a dowry for a couple getting married. 

Caring for this precious resource was a job that mattered.

In Johns Gospel (10:11-18) Jesus offers us an image of a God who cares like the person or community which owns the sheep.  God isn't indifferent, sat on the side-lines waiting to see how everything pans out.  God is involved, passionately protective, and constantly searching for any sheep that have gone astray. This is contrasted with the hireling.  The person just doing it for the money, perhaps with little sense of responsibility towards a family or a community. I find it hard to imagine the hirelings getting together to retrieve a stolen sheep. It takes a community that cares to get so motivated that people put their lives at risk. For the young men I saw in Tanzania the loss of livestock diminished the whole community.  And for that reason it required a response from the whole community.

When we wander away from our faith, or from one another, God doesn't sit idly by. In unexpected ways, in the places we least expect it, God comes looking for us. It may be in the concern a friend expresses about us, or from the lips of a stranger, but wherever it happens, God encourages us to return to her ways. People who felt that they’d walked away from their faith find the Good Shepherd seeking them out.  And this is captured quite beautifully in psalm 139 when the Psalmist says:

If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed
in the depths, you are there. If I take the wings of the
morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me, and your right

hand shall hold me fast. 

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