I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.
I am the good shepherd;…and I lay down my life for the sheep.
Jesus compared himself to a “good shepherd.” Over the centuries these words have become so well-known that for most of us they have lost their force. And our cultural disconnection to animal husbandry takes away much of the impact as well. How can we be expected to fully appreciate a comparison to a shepherd if we don’t really know anything about sheep and shepherds?
But taking what little we do know in contemporary culture about raising animals, this passage brings to light some dramatic changes that have occurred in in how we think about that.
Jesus compared himself to a good shepherd. A good shepherd, he says, loves his sheep so much that he risks his own life to protect and save them. If a wolf attacks, a hired hand will run away, but a good shepherd will defend the sheep at the risk of his own life.
In our time, would we think a “good rancher” or a “good cattleman” would risk his life to protect his herd? Would a “good farmer” risk his life to protect a pig or a chicken? Wouldn’t we be far more likely to consider such a person reckless or foolish? Wouldn’t we consider the life of the shepherd so much more valuable than that of his sheep that a “good shepherd” would never take those kinds of risks to protect a mere commodity?
Of course Jesus’ metaphor would have made no impact on his audience if it was nonsensical. If Jesus said a good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep, and his audience knew that just wasn’t true, then his point would have been lost. It seems reasonable to assume that in his culture a good shepherd would indeed risk his life for the sheep.
If a sheep, a cow, a pig or a chicken has no value beyond eventually becoming human meals, then how could a farmer, rancher or shepherd come to love them enough to risk his life for them? Why would he or she do that? And if that could only be irrational, why did Jesus choose to compare himself to such a person?
Of course it is natural for us, as products of a capitalist worldview, to respond that such a shepherd would be protecting his investment. But in another place Jesus says a good shepherd will leave his flock in search of a missing sheep. Clearly, it seems to me, he isn’t comparing himself to a financially prudent agribusinessman, but rather to a compassionate man devoted to the animals entrusted to his care.
In a society in which we enable and implicity encourage the abuse and mistreatment of farm animals, destroying the concept of husbandry and replacing it with a system whose sole purpose is to deliver meat to our plates as cheaply as possible, we make Jesus’ metaphor quaint, at best, and ridiculous, at worst.
How would Jesus farm? What would he eat?