Restore Dignity and Push Boundaries

Posted: April 21, 2021 in Uncategorized

John 10:11-18

Restore Dignity and Push Boundaries


For us in this country today is a combination of what is traditionally known as ‘Good Shepherd’ Sunday and Anza Day. And this makes for an interesting juxtaposition. The remembrance of lives dedicated to the safety and wellbeing of nation.  It is also about brave heroes who sacrificed their lives for others and of simple animals of huge significance to a culture. Traditionally the images have been of gallant behaviour in horrific conditions, and of a good shepherd with flowing robes, cuddling a tiny lamb, while other sheep lie peacefully at his feet.

The shepherd scene is idyllic.  Probably conjured up in an urban environment.
And nourished, no doubt, by someone’s infant recollections of a favourite ‘teddy’ or ‘Pumpkin Patch kid’. By contrast, the tough shepherd image of one forced to live outdoors and on the fringes of society as an outcast, with an ‘honesty’ and ‘trustworthy’ 1st century reputation on a par with 21st century used car salesmen/women, has all but been lost. Everything and everyone seem to have been sanitized and sentimentalized. Some might say that of Anzac Day also but it would be definitely not PC to say so. So, this morning, out of all the kitsch, let’s see if we can pick up something which is helpful and hopeful.

To begin with, we might hear what West Australian biblical theologian William Loader has to say. He says; “The ancient shepherd of Palestine or Asia Minor had to be tough, worked often in areas of sparse growth, frequently amid danger from wild animals and sheep stealers, and, above all, had to protect the flock, especially at night…  John 10 reflects this less than idyllic world.  The bland teddy bear image gives way to a picture of tension: positively, a shepherd doing his job to the utmost; negatively, dangers which threaten the sheep… and which will kill him.  Life and death dance together.” (WLoader web site, 2006)

And to counter the shepherd/used car salesmen jibe I made earlier on, there was a comment from a car salesman who said: “the most untrustworthy people are those who are trading in cars.” (Stoffregen/CrossMarks web site 2006)

Some of you might also remember the DVD series called ‘Eclipsing Empire’, produced by Living the Questions. It features two biblical scholars: Dom Crossan and Marcus Borg, and their time in Turkey ‘in the footsteps’ so-to-speak, of Paul.

Very quickly in the series one discovers Turkey (like Greece and Italy) teeming with
sites and sights of historic and architectural interest, not the least of which is the ruins of the magnificent Hagia Sophia, the cathedral of Divine Wisdom, built in the early years of the Byzantine Empire.

A modern-day visitor describes this site as: “Here in this vast space are columns in the form of trees reaching skyward supporting the dome of heaven suspended high overhead.  The building itself is a model, a template, of paradise here on earth.  Lines across the floor, dividing the building into quadrants, represent the four rivers flowing out of the Garden of Eden.  Many of the magnificent mosaics that once adorned the walls and ceiling were concealed or defaced after it was converted into a mosque by the Ottomans.  Those that remain portray Jesus and his mother, Mary, John the Baptist and early emperors of Byzantium.” (BAndrews. UUA Shelter Rock web site, 2009)

Dr Barry Andrews goes on: “But none of these depict the most familiar image of Jesus, namely the crucifix.  Throughout Turkey, the birthplace of Christianity as we know it, what one finds are mosaics, wall paintings and figurines showing Jesus as the Good Shepherd, tending his sheep in a pastoral setting, and not the customary Christ on the cross, atoning in his own suffering and death for our sinful ways.” (BAndrews. UUA Shelter Rock web site, 2009)

It is fascinating to find that the first crucifix appears in Germany in the 10th century.
Prior to that the symbolism of the church was very different.  As Val Webb says in her book Stepping Out with the Sacred, “While Western art was absorbed with images of a twisted body on the cross as a bloody sacrifice, Eastern icons focused on Christ victorious over suffering and death, the serenely noble GOD- an.” (Webb 2010:157-58)

Initially it is easy to think that the burden of this story might be the rural images
of shepherd and sheep, which for urban folk like us, are just not part of our everyday experiences, apart from a visit to the meat department of the local supermarket! But maybe there are a couple of other things which can be said about this story and the image of ‘shepherd’.

Two things stand out for me.  Those are: (One) Pastoral, and (Two) Power. In one we have the tough ‘good shepherd’ of the biblical stories who loved the ‘sheep’ enough to restore their dignity to them by ignoring the rules about who belonged or didn’t belong! And we reckon he did this by helping peasant families and workers and other ‘outsiders’, to resist the shame and worthlessness with which the taxation, farming policies, and religious codes had labelled them. (Bessler-Northcutt 2004)

In a well-ordered society, people know their places. In Jesus’ world the “few very rich and the many very poor.” (Funk 2002:46) knew very well their places. But in Jesus’ re-imagined realm of God those ‘places’ were reversed. That’s the pastoral bit.

In the second we have John’s tough ‘good shepherd’ – Galilean, peasant sage -who appears not to be afraid to push boundaries. Be they Family boundaries.
Life boundaries. or Empire boundaries.

Perhaps the most dramatic biblical story of boundary-pushing (according to some) is the one which a couple of biblical storytellers tell… The action of Jesus in the Temple in Jerusalem.

We might have already explored this story through the eyes and ears of the storyteller we call Mark, as well as via a few contemporary biblical scholars. But there is an interesting comment by classics scholar, Richard Horsley.

“… in healing withered limbs and casting out demons from possessed Galilean peasants, fishermen, and workers, Jesus was acting as a prophet to help the People of Israel regain control over their lives and livelihoods…  Whether or not Jesus understood exactly how profitable the Temple services were for the few families that controlled them… few would have mistaken what he was doing.” (Horsley & Silberman 1997:78) That’s the power bit.

On ‘Good Shepherd’ Sunday and on Anzac Day we can very easily slip into looking for, and discovering, a sanitized and sentimentalized Jesus, who cuddles sheep and a glorified sacrificial ideal of lives given to a cause without critique of its wisdom.  In the fair dinkum department, to use an Australian quip we have to say that is an unhelpful response. On the other hand, the challenge of this day is to see and hear the humanity of Jesus and he humanity of soldiers behind the many stories and different images. To see him pointing to something he calls the realm of God, where new possibilities and a re-imagined ‘this’ world, demand to be considered, especially by the Empire, and by the need for political and economic control. To hear this Shepherd inviting his followers to join with him, to walk without fear beyond the many boundaries which always prohibit, block, or deny access to a deeper humanity. (Spong 2001:131)

As Dr Greg Jenks, currently Bishop of Grafton Cathedral in Australia has suggested in his The Once and Future Bible Lectionary Notes: “It is perhaps ironic that some of Jesus’ best-known teachings, derive not from the lips of Jesus but from the hearts of his followers as they reflected on Jesus’ own actions.

  • Jesus did not claim to be the divine/good shepherd; he simply gave himself to others.
  • Jesus did not contrast himself to the hired hand; he simply acted differently.
  • Jesus did not his talk up his intimacy with God; he simply lived as one intimate with God.
  • Jesus did not describe his death as bringing life to others; he simply embraced death as God’s will for him at that time.” 

(Faith Futures web site, The Once and Future Bible Lectionary Notes, 2012)

Pastoral and power. Restoring dignity. Pushing boundaries

Perhaps this is how we might give due honour to ‘Good Shepherd’ Sunday today, and to Anzac Day in recognition of the contributions toward a peaceful world made by those who gave their lives in conflict Amen.

Bessler-Northcutt, J. “Learning to see God – Prayer and Practice in the Wake of the Jesus Seminar” in R. W. Hoover (ed). The Historical Jesus Goes to Church. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2004.
Funk, R. W. A Credible Jesus. Fragments of a Vision. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2002.
Horsley, R. A. & N. A. Silberman. The Message and the Kingdom: How Jesus and Paul ignited a Revolution and Transformed the Ancient World. New York. Putnam, 1997.
Spong, J. S. A New Christianity for a New World. Why Traditional Faith is Dying and How a New Faith is Being Born. New York. HarperSanFrancisco, 2001.
Webb, V. Stepping Out With The Sacred. Human Attempts to Engage the Divine. New York. Continuum, 2010

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