This year Mother’s Day occurs on the 4th Sunday of Easter. It is often called Good Shepherd Sunday. Every year we read about the Good Shepherd from the 10th Chapter of St John’s Gospel. This is fitting as the closest example of Good Shepherding is Mother love. To see this, let us examine the text itself and although we will begin in the ancient holy land we will end in contemporary South Asia.
This section of John’s Gospel follows a dispute between Jesus and the Pharisees. He has cured the man born blind on a sabbath. Covering their jealousy with piety they condemned Jesus for breaking the sabbath. Indeed, they not only threaten Jesus but also the cured man and his family. Jesus tells these enlightened leaders that they were blind. He then talks about shepherds.
If we think about Sheep and the Bible, we most likely remember the Good Shepherd of Psalm 23. We also sang Psalm 110 a few moments ago. These give a quite positive perspective. Yet some of the most powerful references to shepherds are from the prophets Ezekiel and Jeremiah. They speak of the leaders of the people as shepherds but very bad ones. They preached during and after the destruction of Jerusalem with many sent off to exile in Babylon. The prophets laid the blame on the leaders who sought their short-term advantage and ignored the needs of the common people. Thus, the LORD has promised that he will bring the sheep back together again and he himself will lead them (Ez.34:15)
Jesus’ audience would have known the teaching of the prophets and understood immediately that was speaking of the Pharisees when he began the sermon with “Anyone who climbs in over the gate is a thief and a marauder”. The slightest doubt of his purpose of doing so would have been resolved with “I am the Good shepherd; I lay down my life for the sheep.” The sign of a good shepherd is his willingness to struggle, suffer and if necessary, die for the sheep.
Good Jews would also have seen that Jesus says he is “THE” good shepherd. As promised by Ezekiel God now is directly leading his people. Many of his listeners would also have heard Shepherds in action and understood the line ‘They hear my voice” Shepherds developed a distinctive call for their flock but also for individual sheep. Especially at night Shepherds brought their flocks together for safety and convenience and the next morning called to them. The sheep would know their shepherd’s voice and follow only him.
Last week we read the story of Peter’s forgiveness. It reflected the tension in John’s community. Some thought that only Jesus alone and unmediated could be the shepherd. They resisted any real organization and structure. Others recognized that institutional chaos resulted and wished to join with the Churches which followed Peter and his successors. Jesus three times tells Peter that if he loved him, he would feed his sheep and then tells him that he will be martyred for that love. A shepherd must learn the language of self-denial and sacrifice. As Ezekiel taught centuries before everything else will follow.
That is why mothers are good shepherds. I speak from experience. I was vacationing many years ago and a friend’s toddler crawled out in front of a car that was leaving a driveway. His mom without thinking threw herself in front of the car, breaking its movement and one of her ribs. I have read this passage differently since then but also looked at mothers differently as well. The sacrifices they show vary in number and kind and never end. More than one mother has told me that once her first child was born, she never quite relaxed. I am in no way disparaging men who also sacrifice in so many ways for their children, but it is clearer in women. We must listen to that call even more today. I also think we should show that imitation is the highest form of flattery.
Now to South Asia. I have a priest friend in India with whom I often correspond. I hope he will be able to visit us here soon, but Covid has disrupted his society more decisively than here and will last longer. Added to this, as you have perhaps read South Asia is suffering from a murderous heat wave so severe that it may make Covid seem mild, and it is expected to be annual.
Much of this has come from the desire of south Asians to share the lifestyle of the industrialized west for which massive extraction of coal is needed. Yet given their location, much if not more has come from the effects of global climate change completely beyond their control
I of course do not know the answer to this pressing problem, but we should expect to change our attitudes and perspective and so let us return to the Good Shepherd. Jesus would have seen shepherds in action and observed the care and indeed affection a good shepherd would show these animals. He could reasonably use this image for the care of humans and be understood. We should look the other way and recognize that we are so intimately connected to the entire created world that we need to love it with a sacrificial love. If we think too much about it, we can so easily find excuses to do nothing, love must come first.
I have no great desire to sacrifice for the planet. I hope that there will be a technological fix for our problems, but we cannot count on it. God has given the care of the earth to human beings, and we have failed in our charge and must be prepared to like Peter ask forgiveness and tend to what has been aptly called “creation care.”
To truly be stewards of creation we must learn to love the world as a shepherd loves his sheep and a mother her child.