As a child, Jesus would never have said this about himself: “I am the good shepherd.” Jesus is saying this when he’s in his early 30s. But as a child, Jesus would never have thought of himself as “the good shepherd.” He was not a shepherd: good, bad, or indifferent. At least there’s no record in the scriptures that he ever kept sheep. It would never have occurred to him to think that he was “the good shepherd.” As a child, Jesus would have learned and prayed Psalm 23 in the same way that we have: “The Lord is my shepherd.”[i] The Lord was his shepherd. He would have known Psalm 78, about the good shepherding of God for his people: [The Lord] brought his people out like a flock; he led them like sheep through the wilderness.”[ii] The God whom Jesus called “Lord” was the good shepherd.[iii] In a land where sheep abound – their wool to make blankets and clothing; their meat for the daily diet – metaphors about sheep and shepherds would be in common parlance. In the scriptures, there are more than 300 references to sheep and shepherds. Jesus would have known about sheep, and the Lord being his shepherd, but he was no shepherd.
At a young age, Jesus would also have known that ancient Israel’s kings, beginning with King David, were known as shepherds of the nation. Clearly, Jesus was no such shepherd-king. He certainly did not appear royal. He grew up in Nazareth and the reputation was that nothing good could come out of Nazareth. We are not even sure if Jesus was employed. So what happened? When did Jesus’ sense of identity shift. Why did he come to understand himself as a shepherd, a good shepherd, and identify with the Good Shepherd? Why and how? We know some things for sure, and other influences we can conjecture. Just like for all the rest of us, many things influence us. A whole collage of things form, or deform, or reform the tapestry of our calling in life – our vocation. So it was for Jesus. Something evolved in his identifying with shepherds. What happened?
One question sometimes asked about Jesus, concerns his own self-understanding. How did he understand who he was, and the purpose of his mission? We get a glimpse of his answer today. ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’
It was as physician, healer, restorer, forgiver, saviour that Jesus, at least here in Matthew, saw himself. Such an understanding should not surprise us. In the opening chapter of Matthew’s gospel, the angel tells Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’
It is in that context, Jesus as saviour, that the rest of Matthew’s gospel unfolds.
The thing about a saviour is that, just as we don’t need a doctor if we are unaware of our illness, we don’t need a saviour, if we are unaware of our need for salvation. And that for me is the key, to Scripture; to Lent; even to myself.
Two things we hear from Jesus in this Gospel lesson are eye opening. For one, Jesus relentlessly shares meals with notorious “sinners.” Sitting at table with someone, sharing a meal, is a “socially intimate” experience. There’s a sameness between everyone at the table: the same setting, at the same time, eating the same food, feeding the same needs we all have. Jesus sits at table with “sinners and tax collectors,” which is code language for the dregs of society, with whom Jesus is very glad to share a meal and to share life. (If you are sometimes a member of the dregs, welcome home.) And then Jesus alludes to his like a physician: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” Jesus presumes we are unwell. We are not fine and dandy, thank you. We are unwell, Jesus presumes. There’s something about our own life that is significantly damaged, broken, unmanageable, scarred, fearful, or traumatized that needs healing. We’ll need the healing care of Jesus, the physician, for the rest of our life. Our need is that great. Jesus presumes this.
Secondly, Jesus’ taking on the role of physician tells us about the nature of God’s judgment. We are unwell. We cannot heal ourselves. We go to a physician, first to receive a diagnosis. A diagnosis is a judgment. A diagnosis is a physician’s judgment based on what we report and what the physician sees, and hears, and feels in his or her examination of us. The physician draws on their training and experience to determine that this is what is wrong with you, in their judgment. And then you would want your physician to prescribe some treatment that will enable your healing and wholeness. In their judgment, this remedy will save you. This remedy will be a salve to your woundedness. And you would also have every hope – given that you are sick and therefore quite vulnerable, perhaps even fearful or ashamed – that your physician would treat you in a kind and merciful way. Jesus is the Great Physician, a great one indeed.
Saint John of the Cross, the 16th-century Spanish friar, said that, in the end, we will be judged by God. And God’s judgment will be a judgment of love.[i]
[i]Saint John of the Cross, OCarm (1542-1591), was a Spanish mystic, and Carmelite friar and a priest.
Jesus sent out disciples two by two and gave them authority over unclean spirits. Jesus “ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts.” Jesus sent them out with authority and in need, with power and weakness. They needed hospitality from those to whom they were sent. They had to receive and rely on others.
Jesus revealed God not as distant and self-reliant but vulnerable and personal, coming as a baby and dwelling by growing up, living closely with us. In his longest recorded personal conversation, at a well in Samaria, Jesus began by asking for a drink. He was thirsty and had no bucket. Jesus offered good news and connection with his own need.
Hospitality, offering radical welcome, is not only for us to give but essential for us to receive. We Brothers welcome many alongside us in the monastery each week, and this is God’s house. We are all guests receiving God’s sustenance. As a frequent host, it’s hard and healing when I choose to receive hospitality. Being reliant and cared for as a guest furthers my conversion.
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
2 Cor. 5:20 b-6:10
Matt. 6:1-6, 16-21
In my first semester in college I took a drawing class. Though I had been drawing for most of my life, the course refined my ability to see the world afresh. Toward the end of the course, we did some intensive exercises and an assigned piece using charcoal – and in charcoal, I discovered my nemesis! Fine lines executed with slow precision or tiny details requiring the sharpest of pencils– these were the challenges I relished, because these were my skills. Faced with thick chunks or brittle wands of soft, smudgy, ill-behaved charcoal, I felt dismay and fear. During a timed charcoal drawing exercise, we were asked to draw a rapid series of abstract shapes without repeating the same shape twice. Each time my professor passed my drawing desk, his arm slowly reached across the entire width of my paper, and his thick hand obliterated my work. By the ninth or tenth time, my face now sweating and fingers black, I blurted, “Can you tell me what I’m doing that’s wrong or what I’m not doing that’s right?” He replied, firmly but gently, “It’s not so much about wrong or right, Keith, but about seeing afresh. You’re not seeing.” In truth, I had been repeating minor variations on the same shapes and forms I had mastered previously using sharp, precise graphite. I was humbled to realize I had missed the point of the exercise. I began to learn that the habit of art requires the humility to create ugly work for the sake of clearer vision.