The 23rd psalm is possibly the most familiar piece of scripture. It has comforted people in many different situations. The whole idea of the good shepherd pleases us, at least as long as we retain a sanitized romantic picture in our minds. Real shepherds were rough and tough men who had to be ready to fight off predators, scramble through thickets and down cliff sides to rescue wayward sheep. They smelled like sheep and their calloused hands were stained with the oil from the sheep’s skins. They had to know when to butcher and when to save. The sheep were entirely dependent on the shepherd for food, and safety.
How does this image work theologically? In a belief system in which all of creation, humanity in particular, is entirely dependent upon a God who is interactive in each life, the good shepherd oversees the details of existence. Leaders are expected to emulate the behaviour of God in their personal righteousness, mercy, and fierce judgement. The sheep have only to obey, at which they famously fail, as do the leaders.
Our interpretation of the good shepherd in Christian scripture is dominated by John’s interpretation in which Jesus is the good shepherd. Mark’s version, however, seems to differ.
In Mark, Jesus is pursued by the crowds clamouring for healing. He sees them and reflects that they are like sheep without a shepherd and he feels compassion for them. If you looked at them and thought like Jesus, what image would come to mind? Dirty, wayward, bleating, confused sheep shoving each other randomly?
So what does he do? He teaches them! And then he orders his disciples to arrange food for them. And how does the miracle of abundance happen? Does Jesus do a magic trick? Is the miracle that he has taught them how to still themselves, how to share, how to be participants rather than observers? Sadly, the disciples don’t get it and they behave, as they usually do in Mark, in surly obedience.
Is Jesus the good shepherd of this narrative? Is he the messiah come to save? Or does he show them that collectively they can be the good shepherd, they can save themselves. In their midst, the messiah of a new world can be born, in their flesh and in their hearts. I think that, of all the gospels, Mark takes the incarnation most seriously and literally. To recognize God in Jesus is to recognize the immanent connection of the divine in all things. It is to experience the divine abiding within our lives.
When we understand ourselves not as aliens visiting life, but as participants in life, part of the creation, body and soul, then the storms are to be managed, not feared. Bread is to be shared, like love and comfort and hope. We do not have to be passive, but we do need to be open to the spirit who inspires us to freedom. Jesus shows us that we can grow into awareness of the divine within and around us, whose love can show us a new way to live.