I Am the Good Shepherd – Br. James Koester

Throughout the gospels, Jesus uses images and metaphors that would have been familiar to his original audience in describing the kingdom of heaven, his mission, or the nature of God. This particular metaphor of Jesus as the good shepherd would have elicited knowing nods of the head, not only from the shepherds in the crowd, but from everyone present, all of whom would have been familiar with the life of the shepherd.

The problem for us is that, 2000 years, an industrial and technological revolution, and hundreds, if not thousands of stained glass windows and icons later, the image of the good shepherd has lost much of its power. Today when we encounter the image, we see Jesus, with perfectly coifed hair; clothed in gleaming, pure white; holding a fluffy, white lamb in his arms. Gone is any sign that the life of a shepherd was difficult, dangerous, and dirty. In the winter, exposed to the elements for days on end, the life of the shepherd was cold, wet, and miserable. In the summer it was hot, dry, and miserable. Summer and winter, the days would have been long, often lonely, frequently dangerous, and always dirty. If it wasn’t the weather to be contended with, it was boredom and loneliness, on the one hand, and the dangers of predators on the other hand, and always there was the dirt, the muck, the flies, and the smell. And then, there were the sleepless nights and days during lambing season.

Yet Jesus says, I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.[1] Two thousand years ago, the audience listening to Jesus and nodding their heads, would not have had the romantic picture in their minds that we do. Instead, they would be nodding, knowing the harsh, sometimes dangerous, reality of the shepherd’s life.

We often read this passage of the Good Shepherd at funerals and requiems, as we do today, not because we know ourselves to be fluffy, wooly, little lambs, but just the opposite. We know ourselves too often to be, swarmed by flies and weighed down by muck and filth, so much so, that like real sheep, if we find ourselves lying on our sides, we sometimes cannot get up without help; we know ourselves too often lead astray, or lost, tempted by something just beyond our reach. Yet still the good shepherd goes after us, gathers us in his arms, and brings us home.

Today we give thanks for our Brothers in the Society, who have gone before us, and especially Polly’s daughter, and Barb’s sister, Callie, who we are commending to God today. We give thanks for them all, and commend them to the Good Shepherd, not because they were pure, and clean, and fluffy, but somedays, just the opposite, and still Jesus, the Good Shepherd, goes to great length, in spite of all, and seeks them out, gathers them in his arms, and brings them home.

The good news for us today, is that like all those we love, but see no longer,[2] we don’t need to be perfect. We only need to be found, and today we give thanks, not only that the Good Shepherd has found some of his lost sheep, whom we remember today, but in spite of everything, he continues to search for us, so that one day we too will be found, and gathered into his arms, and brought home.

Homily on John 10: 11 – 16,  preached by Brother James Koester SSJE in the monastery chapel on Friday, 13 December 2019 during the monthly requiem and on the occasion of commending Caroline (Callie) Canfield Post to the mercy of God.

[1] John 10: 11

[2] BCP, page 504

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  1. Sarah robinson on April 17, 2024 at 20:46

    “found” sounds so passive to me. Surely we must do something. The idea of being found is comforting, a beautiful thought, but waiting is anxiety-producing.

  2. Wm. Erich Krengel on April 17, 2024 at 12:02

    Thank you, James, this portrayal of the typical shepherd back in Jesus’ days is very realistic and helpful. I greatly appreciate you bringing the meaning of the Gospel in clear language. A hello to all the Brothers with grace and peace from God our loving Parent. -Erich 🙏

  3. margo on May 6, 2021 at 06:56

    Dear James, Thank you so much for reminding us of this. The parish I served once were choosing a pulpit sized icon. It was totally unanimous in the choice of golden haired, spotless white robed Jesus gently holding a fluffy white lamb. Your image is so much more vital and reassuring. Thank you margo

  4. Jaan Sass on December 19, 2019 at 14:28

    So many times when I look at the good shepherd and the lambs so white and and pure I feel more like a goat unacceptable. This picture reminds me that. The lambs are dirty helpless creatures and Jesus loves all of his lambs even me thanks again for this reminder

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