The Good Shepherd:
Warrior of God
Fr. Joseph K. Horn
14 January 1996
St Barbara’s Parish
Santa Ana, California
What do you think of when you hear Jesus saying “I am the good shepherd”? If you’re like most people, you visualize Jesus the way he’s shown in paintings, surrounded by a flock of adoring sheep, with one small lamb on his shoulders, and he’s smiling that easy smile that painters always give him, as if he’s saying, “He’s ain’t heavy; he’s my brother.” We think of him as talking to the sheep, maybe singing to them, maybe giving them bits from his lunch, petting them, and being oh so gentle and sweet.
That mental picture is so sweet it makes me sick. This is not what Jesus meant when he said “I am the good shepherd.” Not even close.
When Jesus said that he is the good shepherd, he did not mean that he’s like those sweet paintings, and I can prove it.
Remember, this is the same Jesus who went into the temple and saw all those merchants ripping off people by exchanging money at unscrupulous rates, and Jesus flew into a rage and made a whip and thrashed them, shouting at them and flogging them unmercifully until they howled and took off running.
Now, wait a second. Is Jesus that kind, gentle, good shepherd of our imagination, or an angry young man who violently attacked people in church? Which is it: Jesus is the gentle Good Shepherd, or Jesus is the aggressive Warrior of God?
Look. If there are good shepherds, then there must be bad shepherds. When Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd,” he knew that the Pharisees and synagogue officials were listening, and he was contrasting himself with them. It was his very clever way of saying, “You are bad shepherds. I will lay down my life for my sheep, but you are just hired hands who run away at the first sign of a wolf or a thief. You are bad shepherds.” How would that have made his listeners feel? I doubt that they got the same mental image of a Good Shepherd as we do.
And let’s get real. Our mental image is pointless. You can’t tell whether somebody is a good shepherd by watching how he treats the sheep. It takes no brains or virtue to be nice to sheep. The test of a good shepherd isn’t how he treats the sheep, but what he does to the thief or the wolf when they attack. How he treats them is what matters.
I dare you to imagine in your mind’s eye the following painting. In the background are flocks of sheep grazing at peace on rolling green hills. But in the foreground we see a shepherd and a wolf grappling in bloody, mortal combat. The wolf’s jowls are dripping with blood as it ferociously lunges at the shepherd’s throat. The shepherd’s clothes are torn and bloody, and he is in obvious pain but his face holds a look that is a mixture of anger and courageous determination. He is looking directly into the face of the wolf, and he reaches towards it, ready to throw it to the ground. His hands are torn and bleeding, and it is easy to see that the fight has been going on for some time. But he is not giving up, and will not allow the wolf to get to the sheep. In the foreground of this painting are a shepherd’s staff and an open shepherd’s bag. The bag contains some bread and fish and a flask of wine: the shepherd’s lunch, which he will eat later. But not now. He is busy fighting for his sheep, for that’s what it means to be a good shepherd.
Or, if you prefer, imagine that it’s not a wolf in the painting, but a thief attacking. The shepherd has pounced on the thief and is holding his shepherd’s staff across the thief’s throat, pinning him to the ground and slowly choking off his air, but the gasping thief is reaching up to grab the shepherd. It’s a horrifying, violent sight, and yet, the whole time, there in the background, blissfully oblivious to the whole thing, the sheep continue to safely graze.
I hope the point of the painting is clear: the sheep may safely graze not in spite of the struggle but because of the struggle. The shepherd is fighting to keep them safe.
Why doesn’t anybody paint The Good Shepherd like this? I’ll tell you why. It’s because it would make us uncomfortable. But religion is not supposed to be comfortable! When Jesus said that he is the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep, he meant it! Literally! He did lay down his life for us, his flock... and tell me, did it make him comfortable?
If you remember just one thing from this homily today, make it this: the painting of The Good Shepherd. Remember that brutal conflict between the vicious wolf or thief and the brave shepherd, while the sheep graze safely. You see, my dear friends, a painting of a sweet and gentle shepherd might make us feel all warm and comfortable, but we were not saved by Jesus’ sweetness and gentleness. We were saved by a man torn and bleeding and very uncomfortable. We were saved by a strong man, a courageous man, a man who proved when he laid down his life for us that he is The Good Shepherd.