“… for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people.” (Matthew 2:6, Micah 5:2)
Shepherd my people?
In light of the rulers and ‘kingdoms’ of Jesus’ day and ours, this sounds like a contradiction in terms. Yet, a shepherd was the ideal of kingship according to Old Testament writers (e.g. Psalm 78, 2 Samuel 5:2). God’s rule is described as that of a shepherd (e.g. Psalm 23, 80, Genesis 48:15, 49:24; Isaiah 40:10a-11).
Despite this tradition, the political servitude and economic oppression of Jesus day led many to replace the image of Shepherding Messiah-King with a powerful warrior champion who would come in triumph and conquer in might.
How ironic. The Sent One lies in a manger, innocent and vulnerable. He takes on our frailties. He bears the burdens of the least of these. This is all so he might rule the Shepherd’s way.
The Shepherd’s Way
What is the shepherd’s way? How exactly does a shepherd ‘rule’?
The shepherd does not rule like a rancher from an ‘Ol’ Western’ movie. Cowboys herd cattle from behind with prods and pokes. With whips and lassos, they steer their beasts. They enforce their will and make them go where they want them to, with fear and intimidation.
Sound familiar, perhaps like any rulers we know? Shepherds, in contrast, assume a different posture, leading from among as Jesus illustrates in John 10.
Shepherds know their sheep (10:3, 4, 14). How well do we know (not just know of or about) our neighbors? They are God’s sheep to whom we have been sent. We can’t lead if we don’t know them by name.
Shepherds go ahead (10:4). Jesus already has gone ahead of us. He has already gone into our neighborhoods, our schools, our workplaces, our cities. Like a shepherd who leads the way for her sheep, ensuring that it is safe, directing her flock to green pastures, beside still waters (Psalm 23).
Shepherding Like Jesus
I wonder what it looks like for us to go ahead of our neighbors and to make a way? What does it look like to find good pasture, to encourage, to carry the lambs? (Isaiah 40:10a-11; Ezek.34:11, 14-15, 23)
Don’t forget that shepherds lay down their lives for their sheep (John 10:11). We, who live on the other side of, not only Jesus’ birth but his life, death and resurrection, know this and can share what Jesus laid down, demonstrate it, and live it!
Rejoice in it and trust it! Jesus is Shepherd King! He is The Shepherd King who laid down His life for the sheep that we may have life and have it abundantly! (v.11, 10)
But just as in days of old, there is often a discrepancy between the shepherding God models and seeks, and the shepherding we have exercised (e.g. Ezekiel, Nahum, Zephaniah, Zechariah). Unfortunately, history records how the people of God (more often than we like to admit) have taken positions of political, religious and economic superiority, and muscle that have not reflected the rule of their shepherd.
The suffering Servant lived among not above, walked beside, and called by name: Matthew, Peter, Martha, Mary, Zacchaeus. He listened and shared stories, welcomed unclean, sinner, and all alike at the feast of the king.
I confess that I have not always taken the posture of a shepherd in the midst of those who need to hear the Lord call them by name. I have tried to poke and prod, argue and convict. I have judged, ignored and denied. I have had to ask the Spirit to show me when I have used others to make me look good and feel good. Sometimes I have looked at others as numbers, rather than names, as objects rather than subjects made in the Image of the One I love, my Shepherd.
The Voice of the Shepherd
In order for followers of Jesus, representatives of his Shepherd-rule on earth today, to be like good shepherds, we must know his voice (10:4). Do I really know and listen to His voice?
There are so many persistent noisy voices seeking to rule my life:
- Society’s voice demanding tolerance: ‘let everyone go their own way.’
- The voice of individualism: “make your own rules.”
- The cry of pop psychology: “do whatever’s right for you.”
- The consumer- or should I say consuming voice telling me that my identity comes from what I consume.
- The materialistic voice assuring me that I can find the way with more and better and bigger and faster and sleeker stuff, no matter the cost to my sisters and brothers and the rest of creation!
- The voice of the latest spirituality claiming it knows the way to serenity, health and prosperity now.
Have we been intimidated by the voices of these strangers whom Jesus calls “thieves and robbers” (John 10:1, 5, 10, 12-14)?
Worse yet, have we been hired hands, strangers, raiding sheep pens and scattering sheep?
The risen Jesus commissioned Peter to “Tend [his] lambs” and “Feed [his] sheep” (John 21). Those who worship the One born to shepherd His people are made and called to be like our Shepherd among those with whom God has placed us together.
Together, we can embody our Shepherd among our neighbors who are trying (like us), to hear His voice. At the same time, we can embrace our own “sheepiness” alongside them as we together seek to follow the way of the Incarnate One.
There will be one flock, a great multitude from every nation, robed in white linen, and the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life (Rev.7:17).
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