The Good Shepherd and Our Good Mother
May 11, 2014
Today is Good Shepherd Sunday. Our Psalm is perhaps the most well known in scripture, depicting the gentle and caring shepherd watching over his sheep. In the second reading, St. Peter writes, “For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls,” and the climax of course is the gospel reading, “The shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.”
I’ve heard this passage over and over again throughout my life, and have grown fond of the comforting image. Besides an occasional petting zoo, the only sheep I can remember coming across in my life was almost two years ago when LauraAnn and I went to Ireland for our honeymoon. We were surprised to see that the countryside looked just as we had imagined in fairy tales—rolling hills of bright and beautiful green scattered with sheep as far as we could see. A number of times we had to stop our car to let them pass. This is the image I have in mind hearing our scripture readings today. Rolling hills of green, glowing with a misty rain and in the distance, the shepherd, staff in hand watching over his flock. What a beautiful picture!
But this week when I read this well-known story again I saw something I hadn’t noticed before. The gospel says that the people didn’t understand what Jesus was saying. How could they not understand such a perfect image? Isn’t it obvious? Didn’t they known Psalm 23? How could they not understand that Jesus was saying that they were sheep and he was their shepherd? I kept reading, “So again, Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly I tell you…’” And this is where I’m thinking “Ah Ha! Now Jesus will tell them about his being a shepherd and they’re going to kick themselves for not seeing it.” Keep reading “’I am the gate for the sheep.’” The gate? In that beautiful story you would rather be the gate than the shepherd? How does that sound? “The Lord is my gate, I shall not be locked out.” Not quite as pleasing to the ear as I was hoping for.
But Jesus is the gate. Jesus is the entry to a life of abundance. Jesus is our opening to a radical life of loving others, a door to the way that saves. And yet, if we read one more paragraph down, the paragraph that our reading doesn’t include today, Jesus continues, “I am the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep.” There it is! A little late, but it’s there.
Language is funny that way isn’t it? You can tell a story and people can hear it so many different ways. And that’s even truer when we’re talking about God in scripture. Jesus is the gate and the shepherd.
There’s a Jewish tradition to approaching scripture that’s called Midrash. Midrash points out that a Biblical text always has more to say to us than what we first hear. In any given passage there are countless whispers speaking softly to us countless messages, countless stories. As I often heard in the church in which I grew up, “We call it the Living Bible because it reads you as you read it.” Think of it like a diamond being held up to the light. Depending on where the light touches the stone, it shines and reflects in different ways, touching the eyes of those who see it each with unique perspectives. Jesus is the gate and the shepherd.
And this is an especially good thing when it comes to talking about God. Contemporary mystic Carl McColmon says that each thing said about God simultaneously takes us closer and farther from the truth. Words can point us towards God, but they can never fully capture the essence of God. When we say that Jesus is a shepherd, through that analogy we are invited into a more intimate knowledge of him, but really Jesus is not a shepherd. As lovely a notion of a shepherd is, it doesn’t do Jesus justice and the same is true of the gate. So now we see that not only is Jesus the gate and the shepherd, he is also not the gate and not the shepherd!
It is through this tension, this balancing act that we continually draw closer to God. The Bible doesn’t always need to be taken literally, because that’s too easy. If we always take it literally, than the Bible becomes merely a book for reference. But if instead we take scripture and hold it up to the light, letting the Spirit shine upon it in unique and beautiful ways, in a way we are united with it. We begin to take on its characteristics, we begin to feel it inside of us.
Our reading in Acts is a perfect example of a community of people experiencing this reality. Using the Twenty-Third Psalm as an example, look at how they embody the scriptures. When the Psalmist says, “I shall not be in want,” the account in Acts says “Those who believed shared all things in common, as any had need.” When the Psalmist says, “For you are with me,” we see the early church “spending much time together.” When the Psalmist says, “You prepare a table before me,” we read in Acts that “they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts.” And finally when the Psalmist says, “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever,” we see the community of believers “day by day worshiping in the temple.” It’s one thing to pray a psalm, it’s another thing to let its Spirit so permeate reality that you become one with it. This is the kind of community that we want to be. We not only read our scriptures, we embody them—we become one with them.
Each time we take a look at the scriptures we may see something else. This time we may see ourselves as the sheep and Jesus as our shepherd, another time he is the gate. Perhaps in a week we will read it again and see that God is calling us like Jesus to be a kind of gate or shepherd in the midst of those around us. Where is the light touching the scripture? What is the Spirit whispering to us?
Not only is today Good Shepherd Sunday, it’s also Mother’s Day, which I think is particularly appropriate. For better or for worse, our society associates many of these shepherding qualities with women and mothers. Look at the Psalm again, “He makes me lie down,” “he comforts me,” “he prepares a table for me.” And we see scripture again, transfigured before our eyes. Each week, just as Jesus taught us we pray, “Our Father,” but the light changes its focus and suddenly God is also our Mother. Jesus is the gate and the shepherd. And as Julian of Norwich wrote in the 1300’s, “Just as surely as God is our Father, God is also our Mother.” What would the scripture look like from this angle? From this perspective? What if the Psalmist instead of writing of God as a shepherd wrote of God as a Mother, as he very easily could have done? To close, let’s imagine together:
The Lord is my Mother, she provides all I need.
She sings me to sleep at night;
Her voice is a soothing stream.
She comforts and encourages me.
She teaches me the way of love.
And even when the lights go out,
I am not afraid. For she is with me.
Her firm confidence comes with tender hands.
She prepares a meal for me
and invites those with whom I don’t get along.
She fills my cup.
Surely in my life, she will always love me,
And I shall be wrapped in her arms forever.