If your community is like mine, you have a war memorial in a public place like a courthouse lawn or a city square. Perhaps it's dedicated to a particular local hero. It might be inscribed with some patriotic paen, ancient or modern, to the glories of self-sacrifice for the greater good; maybe accented by laurel wreaths...war eagles...a winged Victory.
Now imagine that same memorial -- the same design, the same high-falutin' inscription, the same appeals to honor and nobility of heart -- dedicated to, say, an unfortunate local pioneer, dying in childbirth, whose lonely sacrifice in a drafty homesteader's cabin in the woods long ago allowed a new generation to carry on. Or a farm worker, body broken by a life of hard physical labor, injury and exposure to toxic chemicals, who nonetheless did what s/he had to do to make sure that his or her kids could grow up in America, and have more of a chance at a decent life than s/he could ever hope for.
Last night I was reading a commentary on the "Good Shepherd" passages of the Gospel of John. The author pointed out that the language and themes used in the text parallel the honors bestowed upon war heroes in Greco-Roman culture; in fact, he suggested that the good in Good Shepherd is perhaps better translated as noble.
In the classical way of thinking, a noble warrior gives his life to save others. A noble warrior owns his own actions; he does what he does of his own volition. A noble warrior honors his family name.
How ironic, then, that in the Gospel of John these images of strength and character and purpose are applied to...a shepherd; among the lowliest of the low in ancient Palestinian society. I once heard that shepherds held such a disreputable place in the Jewish community of old that they were considered ritually unclean; I'm not enough of a scholar to know if that's true, but I will hazard a safe guess that "my son the shepherd" probably didn't earn many bragging points for Jewish mothers down at the community well.
And how doubly ironic that the Noble Shepherd gives his life for...sheep. Sheep are -- how can I put this? -- dumb as a box of rocks. They're pretty helpless; one day as I was driving home from work, as I passed by one of our local petting farms I encountered an unhappily bleating sheep stuck firmly in a barbed-wire fence, like fluff in a lint trap, and I wound up having to call the farmer so he could rescue his animal. Sheep are very vulnerable to predation; even here in a relatively populated area of our county, our local sheep farmers have to contend with both coyotes and neighbors' pet dogs savaging their flocks.
Kind of stupid...easily hurt...easily led into error or misfortune; yup, sounds about right on any given day of my life.
The Gospels are incredibly subversive documents. And what is more subversive than the image of a God who stoops to conquer -- stoops as low as a sheep pen. Who picks up the pieces when the predators attack and the hired hands run away. Who rejects the world's assessment of who is "out" and who is "in," who reserves the right to gather in whomever God wants. Who will go anywhere and do anything to find us and bring us home, and who somehow empowers the "found" flock -- clueless, silly, smelly sheep that we still are -- to assist in this process. And who does all of these things not out of necessity, not out of duty, but out of...love.
The King of Love my Shepherd is. Amen!
Christ the Good Shepherd, Roman sculpture, 2nd century