I think I have finally figured out how to explain our culture. And I am pretty sure that there is no secret to it at all. It has been inside my computer all along, even though I have only just recently noticed it. I now know what it is that interests us, what it is that is important to us, and perhaps, most importantly, what it is that guides us and shepherds us through life as a people. And this recent discovery of mine has been staring me in the face for who knows how long, and this morning, I will reveal it to all of you. On the part of my computer that does the internet, there is a series of photographs which flash by in rapid sequence. Attached to these photographs are some strange, but attractive sounding titles, designed, I think, to entice you to click on them. In fact, in discussing this with my daughter, she told me that this stuff is called “click bait”. And so while I was not quite brave enough to do any clicking, I did take a few minutes last week to write some of theses titles down. And in writing them down, it occurred to me that this is the stuff that drives us as a culture. This is what gets our attention; this is what draws our hearts and minds and souls away from that which is truly important. This is the stuff that keeps us perpetually distracted from the sacred business that we ought to be attending to. This is the stuff that we worship, this is the stuff of our idols, carefully crafted of bits and bytes and bauds.
Before I wasted too much time writing titles down, I managed to collect up an even dozen of them. And you’ll have to trust me that I did it randomly. Some of them have no meaning at all to me, but there’s a few of them that I can throw an educated guess at. But what I’m pretty sure about is that all of them, including the ones that I missed, are essential to the living of our lives, otherwise, they wouldn’t be so enticingly placed. I also noticed this week that this stuff changes every day, so that there is plenty of new material to keep us perpetually distracted. It also tells me that what might have been so interesting last week, might very well have become dull or uninteresting or inessential this week. I know, Wayne, get to it. Tell us what you wrote down, we’re interested. So, here they are:
- No 12 Tabloid paid for, spiked, salacious Trump tip
- No 11 Markle’s sister goes on wedding rant
- No 10 Stranger on plane adopts woman’s son
- No 9 Khloe gives birth amid cheating scandal
- No 8 Patriot’s star could miss first day of off-season program
- No 7 Prince William drops hint on royal baby gender
- No 6 Paul Ryan is poised to earn millions
- No 5 Here’s a look at U.S. firepower near Syria
- No 4 Singer claims flight attendant harassed her
- No 3 5 credit cards offering $150 cash sign-up bonus
- No 2 Internet roasts Zuckerberg for odd request
- No 1 Yale cardiologist: I lost 70 lbs by eliminating three foods
So, there you have it. That’s a dozen of the things that were pretty essential to our lives about a week and a half ago. I’ve made a point of trying not to look at any more titles, but it is a lot like trying not to imagine pink elephants. And I know very well that because they are so attractively and enticingly placed, that if I ever started clicking on them that I would have enough reading material to keep me distracted for a very long time. I do not need any more false gods. I have enough already.
But, inquiring minds are already asking, at least I hope they are asking, what does all of this have to do with the Good Shepherd? And the answer is, well, not really much at all. But it has probably got quite a bit to do with the hired hand. Pink elephants and an image of a smiling Jesus with a lamb slung over his shoulder are pretty easy to conjure up, and equally difficult to get rid of, or erase from our minds. But what do we know about hired hands?
Like the even dozen, the hired hand is not a true shepherd at all, but merely masquerades as one. That’s important, especially in terms of the even dozen, The even dozen isn’t really real, and neither is the hired hand. Both are false shepherds. Both take on the role of the shepherd when there is no shepherd present. Both are substitutes for the real thing. And because both are substitutes, neither has any genuine concern for those who have entrusted themselves to and for their care. Both are very likely false gods that we have learned to trust when we have no business doing so.
So…who is the even dozen and who is the hired hand? Are they the devil? Not really. The even dozen is nothing more than a binary beast with a loud and diverse voice, that has learned to mutate itself on a daily basis in order to maintain its enticement and distraction qualities at a level that will draw in as many people as possible.
And the hired hand? The hired hand is merely a self absorbed character who likes to pretend that he is a shepherd. But, because he has no real investment in the sheep other than a paycheck, he runs away at the first sign of trouble. He gladly abandons the sheep in favor of preserving his lack of integrity, which seems to be his most valued possession. The hired hand is the most important person he knows, and he intends to keep it that way, even if a few sheep have to perish along the way. The hired hand can be found ‘most anywhere, but there is an unusually large collection of them on religious television masquerading as real shepherds. These hired hands, having mastered the art of enticement, will, for a few dollars, lead their followers blithely down the primrose path, telling them anything they want to hear, at least until trouble comes. But when trouble comes, it becomes abundantly clear that the hired hand is no shepherd at all, but merely a tawdry imitation.
So at last, then, we come to the good shepherd. Jesus opens this passage by telling his first listeners that he is the good shepherd. But as he goes on to describe his role as the good shepherd, it must have become very clear, very quickly, to his first listeners that Jesus was not a good shepherd at all. His description of himself far exceeds that of any good shepherd his listeners might have known or even heard of. We, on the other hand, not living in an agrarian society, not being sheep keepers of our own, might simply breeze through this passage and say to ourselves, Oh, isn’t that lovely, Jesus is the good shepherd, sort of like Psalm 23, and with a lamb swung over his shoulders. But Jesus’ listeners knew what a good shepherd was, and Jesus was describing himself in terms that clearly indicated that he was something other than a good shepherd. But in doing so, Jesus has achieved his ultimate goal. He has gotten his listeners to think. I wonder, was it as hard in Jesus’ day to get people to think as it is today? In this passage, Jesus has gotten his listeners to think beyond their normal, comfortable level of understanding. In fact, when this discussion is over, very few will think that this was a lovely chat. Some of Jesus’ listeners will be convinced that Jesus has gone over the edge. They will announce that he is possessed of a demon, or that he has lost his mind or both.
So what is a good shepherd? A good shepherd is an entrepeneur; a business person. A good shepherd does in fact own his or her own sheep, as Jesus indicates, and a good shepherd will do his or her own best to protect the sheep and care for the sheep. And from time to time, if it seems appropriate, or necessary, a good shepherd may risk his or her life for the sheep. And this is because the sheep are an investment. The sheep are the shepherd’s income. And when the sheep are mature, most of them will be sold for food. If it is near Passover time, a few lambs will be sold for the Passover meal, and if the shepherd is fortunate enough, a very few of his flock that have remained relatively unscathed, might even be sold at a higher price for sacrifice. And a few of the best ones, if the shepherd is wise and good, will be reserved for breeding stock. This is what a good shepherd is, and it is not at all what Jesus is, and Jesus makes that clear as he continues to talk.
And as Jesus continues to talk, it becomes clear that Jesus is not talking about sheep and shepherding at all. Instead he is talking about relationships and the power of love and responsibility that is present in those relationships. And it is about how all of these relationships have their beginning with Jesus’ Father in heaven, and how that love moves out from the Father and through Jesus, and then in and among those who will become his followers.
And quite inexplicably, as Jesus speaks, we discover that this love compels a death. But it is not a tragic death, or a senseless death, but rather a death that exhibits the very love and power and authority of heaven itself. This is a death that is intentional and voluntary and purposeful. But this is also a death that does not produce hopelessness. This is a death that produces life and love and power and authority. This is a death, that produces, by the commandment of God, the glory of resurrection. And about this we have no option but to think and to ponder. It is not simply our Lord’s intention, it is also his command.