If you were to visit the Adelaide Unitarian Church, you could not help but notice our lovely heritage stained-glass windows at the back, a keepsake from our former 19th century Neo-gothic pile in the city centre. These stand in stark variance in style to the current building's 1960' architectural style, all pale brick and teak. They also stand in stark variance to our post-Christian theology. In particular, one of these windows features the familiar Christian meme of Jesus as “the good shepherd”, gently cradling an deceptively passive lamb.
|Okay, see...sheep never allow this for very long|
Even in my Catholic youth, this parable always puzzled me. I mean, I understood what the church was getting at — that one aspect of Jesus’s self-denying love was that he would go far out of his way to retrieve the lost sheep, trustingly leaving the other 99 to graze. This was part of the early Christian strategy of radical inclusion: that no matter how wayward one of the flock became, we should rejoice more in the one that was“saved” from falling prey to wolves, than for the 99 who went not astray.
I bred and raised organic sheep for a few years on our spread in the Adelaide Hills. The breed was a particularly ornery one that resisted mustering in much the same way Unitarians resist conformity. Our land was hilly, rocky, and alive with foxes, so chasing after strays was difficult, urgent, and more or less constant. Because of the terrain, we had to do this on horseback, so there was another animal to manage as well.
|Looks bucolic, doesn't it? I thought so too...|
Sheep are singularly unintelligent creatures, and the ornery-ness of this breed doubled-down on that. To escape the apparent horrors of muster, strays would tumble over rocky outcrops, their stiff, brittle legs askew. They would try to leap fences and get tangled in barbed wire lines at the top. And then hang there upside-down, going “baaaaa” as if they were totally surprised at this outcome. They would charge head-first into cyclone fencing and break their stupid necks! And despite all this, still I chased them up hill and down dale.
Sheep may be thick, but which animal in this scenario is thicker?
Because in the meantime, lacking my “pastoral” presence, the other 99 also went astray, drifted off into other paddocks to graze, as their nature demands. And then the muster would have to begin all over again. I would spend whole days doing this, or until my horse (ironically named “Rebel”) would simply quit and lie down, citing his deplorable working conditions.
This experience left me thinking that Jesus (or the biographer who attributed this parable to him) was, like Rob-the-Shepherd, a well-intentioned imbecile. From a purely utilitarian standpoint, how can the greatest good be done for the greatest number if the Pastor keeps chasing those who (for whatever reason) do not want to be included in the fold? Says the 'Good Shepherd', “No, please come back! Come back with all your anger, dysfunction, and self-destructiveness! Don’t leave us, we can’t bear rejection! Not even yours!” Meanwhile, the flock of 99 dissipates . . .
|Okay, but this is the last time I bail you out...|
One of many useful and enlightening notions, gleaned from my recent conversations with the Rev. Dr. David Usher, was the seemingly counter-Christian idea of “The Fierce Shepherd”, who refuses to waste time, energy, and resources running after the strays, but stays with and looks after the greater flock. Like me, David has some experience of sheep mustering. Unlike me, David has 30 years experience as a congregational “pastor”.
Ministers and pastors aren’t Jesus, and shouldn’t pretend to be. Jesus’s ministry was mobile; ours is anchored to brick-and-mortar. Jesus’s ministry did not have to contend with modern working legalities of health and safety, contractual obligation, and even a routine preaching schedule. We can’t, and shouldn't, just leave our “flock” to tilt at the windmills of Christ-like perfection.
No, we can’t be this idealized, entirely mythical “Good Shepherd”; what we can try to be is “The Good-enough Shepherd”.