The Good Shepherd
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
When Jesus finds the lost sheep, ‘he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and carries it home.’ (Luke 15:5) Art depicting this familiar image of Jesus the Good Shepherd is almost as old at the church itself. It adorns the walls of ancient catacombs, stained glass windows of countless churches (including Immanuel), and the religious imagination of generations of Sunday school kids.
The life of Jesus reveals the heart and character of God. This is why we call it good news. Yet from the beginning this news makes some people grumble to the point of becoming violent. Whether then or now, there’s a bitter irony in how the simple act of accepting another person angers some people. I wonder who the people are who are difficult for you to call brother or sister?
Jesus ‘welcomed sinners and ate with them’. (Luke 15:2B) Jesus was open to people we ignore and despise. He exuded compassion. People felt safe with Jesus. The only people who didn’t feel safe were the religious experts who appointed themselves as gatekeepers of God’s love. They had good reasons to feel unsafe. In Matthew 23 Jesus denounced them with “seven woes” as hypocrites, snakes, and blind guides. (Daniel Clendenin, Journey with Jesus, posted 9/4/16)
Being on the inside with Jesus means not putting anyone, even our worst enemies, on the outside. It is very difficult, perhaps even impossible to do, without the power of the Holy Spirit steadily working within us to transform our minds, change our hearts, and open our hands. Whereas the gatekeepers get angry, Jesus says three times that there’s “joy in heaven” when the lost are found and returned to the fold. Jesus tells three parables — the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost (or Prodigal) son. Each reinforces the other in making the same point about the Divine Welcome extended to all people and about God’s unconditional acceptance.
In each moment we can measure the depth of the resurrected life the Spirit has created in us by how ready we are to join that heavenly party or, like the Prodigal’s older brother, do we prefer to stand outside? We have that choice. We are all invited inside. Being on the inside with Jesus is better, but you can choose to be on the outside.
In fact, Jesus almost rubs our noses in how difficult these parables can be for us. He doubles down on the offensive nature of the good news by using three images for God at work in the world that would have offended the religious sensibilities of good people during that time: a shepherd, a woman, and a Father that has no pride.
Which of you, Jesus asked, doesn’t abandon the sheep in the field to search for the one that is lost? Which of you upon finding a lost coin would not immediately spend it on a party to rejoice with their friends? These are rhetorical questions—we are meant to answer yes, of course we would. But in truth, none of us would. Nobody is so foolish and so generous as God. Yet this is the new life that we drink and eat. This is what the Holy Spirit accomplishes in us with water and Word.
Jesus welcomed the unwelcomed. He accepted the unacceptable without any preconditions. He angered the religious experts preaching we don’t need to do anything to receive God’s welcome, because there’s nothing to do. God welcomes us just like we are and right where we are. Martin Luther described faith as the beggar’s empty hand that accepts a gift. (Clendenin)
This is what Jesus’ Christ-ness is about. Jesus opens the eyes of the rest of the herd, opens the eyes of those who think they are not lost, to see and love what it is they have lost, and to love their neighbors as themselves. (Alyce McKenzie, Edgy Exegesis, 9/08/13)
In this week’s epistle reading, Paul uses himself as an example of God’s “unlimited patience.” God’s welcome, says Paul, is “a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance.” Throughout the New Testament, Paul describes himself as a former religious zealot who tried to exterminate the early Christian movement.
In this letter we realize that as an old man Paul was still haunted by his past. He describes himself as “formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor.” But God welcomed Paul. And his conversion moved him from violent aggression to indiscriminate love.
Today marks the 15th anniversary of 9-11. A terrible day, a day of death and destruction. A fearful day. America has mourned and honored its dead, and rebuilt what was destroyed. But there is among us a spirit that wants to turn Arabs and Moslems into Eternal Outsiders, because of that day.
Great protest arose when the existing Tri-Beca Al Farah Mosque wanted to build a Ground Zero mosque, prayer and study center where all religions could meet, as a sign to the world that Islam is a religion of peace. Many were fine with this project, but after two years of struggle in the face of widespread resistance, the Moslem owners decided instead to build luxury condos on the site. It was another victory of the self-appointed gatekeepers over the Good Shepherd. It was another nail in the crucifixion. The goodwill needed to do good deeds, to do God’s Work with Our Hands, grows in us when we reject hate and learn to rescue what is perishing. (Nancy Rockwell, A Bite in the Apple)
Jesus is the Great Shepherd of the Lost. “Grace tells us that we are accepted just as we are,” writes Donald McCullough. “We may not be the kind of people we want to be, we may be a long way from our goals, we may have more failures than achievement … but we are nonetheless accepted by God, held in his hands. Such is his promise to us in Jesus Christ, a promise we can trust.”
Poet Edwina Gateley writes, “Let your God love you. / Say nothing. / Ask nothing. / Let your God look upon you. / That is all.”