The breadth and depth of pain inflicted by this virus so far will never be fully measured, recorded, or reported. And it isn’t even over yet—the twin crises of Covid and climate have more in store for us.
This is an absurd world, and we have made it that way. The airwaves are full of analyses of how we got here and how to get out of it. You won’t guess what Jesus’ analysis is.
Start with this passage from John’s Gospel this morning, the appointed text in the lectionary for the Fourth Sunday of Easter--Jesus seems to be in some public place where a crowd had gathered around to witness the altercation between the man born blind, whom Jesus had just healed, and his family and their neighbors and the Pharisees all disputing how such a miracle could have happened.
After putting the Pharisees down as being blind themselves, Jesus relates a parable for them as a clue—just a clue—to who he is. The picture he draws is taken from the very familiar context of agrarian society, but they don’t get it at first (that was in the first reading). Then Jesus has another go at it (this was in the second reading), from a slightly different direction, that sows even more dissention among his listeners.
It shouldn't have been hard to understand the analogy he was drawing between himself and a shepherd who cares for his flock. Except that Jesus explicitly contrasts the shepherd with thieves and bandits who sneak into the sheepfold late at night to plunder the flock.
Well today, we mostly find this to be a quaint image, from the point of view of our post-industrial and middle class society, one we already recognize from the comforting 23rd Psalm and the reassuring image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd who seeks after every last one of his flock. Not to mention its familiarity to us because it was the primary visual image of Jesus for the first two hundred years of the church’s history, prominent in the catacombs of Rome during the decades of persecution—it is the image of a shepherd with a lamb thrown over his shoulders. (The cross and the crucifix do not figure in Christian iconography until a long time later.)
Yes, how quaint, to us, but it had another meaning—to Jewish ears the analogy was abrasive, because the Hebrew prophets are replete with identifications of the king with shepherds as a way of signifying the nature of the responsibility of kings for their domain, actually a very personal and almost intimate responsibility. Which responsibility the prophets were clear to point out was violated over and over by Israel’s monarchs.
Here’s a passage from Ezekiel that will show you why the shepherd analogy raised the hackles of Jesus’ listeners.
34 The word of the Lord came to me: 2 “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? 3 You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. 4 You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. 5 So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. 6 My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them.
It goes on, but here is the clincher--
18 Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture? Must you also trample the rest of your pasture with your feet? Is it not enough for you to drink clear water? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet? 19 Must my flock feed on what you have trampled and drink what you have muddied with your feet?
Jesus was contrasting himself against the religious authorities and the actual governors in a way that was particularly embarrassing to them—as if to say, let me do your job for you—the right way.
In the second part, Jesus shifts the analogy to claim now that he is the gate to the sheepfold, that is, the door to safety, the door to salvation, to eternal life, that is, to a life lived in the eternal now of forgiveness and reconciliation which brings abundant wealth and riches.
Even though he has shifted the analogy from shepherd to door, Jesus again (!) repeats the by now grating reminder about the thieves and robbers who despoil the land. This fierce shepherd, Jesus, one day will run afoul of the enthroned shepherds during the Roman occupation of Israel and die for it, and he will not be deterred by that likelihood any more than the prophets before him were.
Sheep are not stupid followers, it must be said—they will follow only someone trustworthy, and Jesus says to them, I am that—follow me. The stringent demands of the prophets upon rulership are not being met by kings, but by Jesus himself, the forgiveness-bearer whom you can trust.
Maybe there isn’t any king who wants to or can live up to the demands of the prophets, and maybe there is no American president either (of whatever party), nor cabinet member nor state governor. However, fallible women and men can be good rulers, “good shepherds.” So then, make all leaders sit under the glaring exam light of Jesus’ parable of a good shepherd, or THE good shepherd, and judge how they fare.
It was a simple parable, but they didn’t get it at first, but when they did, they didn’t like it. It’s a simple parable for us, too, but we don’t get it in the United States of America either, and if we did, we wouldn’t like it.
The land of the free and the home of the brave has translated in practice into a democracy of unregulated opportunism—and don’t anybody tread on me! The sheer abundance of nature just had to be harvested wholesale, the dangers thoroughly subdued, the vastness rendered useful to human habitation—and so it came to pass, nature was trammeled in the process of making the continent not just habitable but also profitable.
Nothing new here, every part of the globe has been settled by an invading force—that’s nature, one body of organisms claiming space for itself over others. What’s Covid, after all?
But America added one lethal thing—science. Yes, lethal. It’s a paradox—science is one of the great creative forces in human civilization, conquering disease, saving lives; but science made a Faustian bargain when our civilization embraced only the problem-solving faculty of creativity.
Yes, we Americans are well-known for this, for our can-do faculty, and this kind of creativity got us to the moon and safely back. This was exemplified during the Apollo 13 crisis when they signaled, “Houston, we have a problem,” and their science saved them. All good, of course, they got home, thank goodness. But this life-saving effort was only half the creative equation and the lesser half, at that.
The other half of creativity has more than a life-saving purpose; it has a life-giving purpose—LIFE-GIVING. It is proclaimed in the Resurrection of Christ, the event that reaches back behind the death of Christ into his life and ratifies the true life of divine creativity.
It may or may not work out that we get saved from the death-threat of Covid-19 by the scientific search for a vaccine. But what I can guarantee that will succeed is activating the theological creativity that creates out of nothing, as God created out of nothing. At the moment, many, many people are bumping their heads against their limits, and so we are going to have to reach beyond science into our spiritual selves for the Eternal Now that is ever and always creating new possibilities.
We mistake Jesus if we take creativity to be an “activity” like science, instead of as a property of God’s universe to which we belong and are heirs, as the Native American cultures that we destroyed believe.
Possibly you understand now the prohibition against worshiping created goods instead of the creative good, against worshiping the Golden Calf instead of the “I Am,” against worshiping the stock market instead of “treasures in heaven,” that is, the life-giving treasures of divine creativity.
This is an absurd world, and we have made it that way alright, but . . BUT! We were created in the image of God, heirs to a theological creativity. And so there is hope—I know that my Redeemer liveth! Our hope is in Christ the Resurrected One, the forgiveness bearer, bringer of life abundant. Amen.
My subject next Sunday will be the question whether churches are, or can be, collectively creative when faced by a “limit situation” such as the present one.