An odor of sanctity

Most people today have only the sketchiest notions of where their food comes from and how it is produced. Even adults often fail to associate the shrink-wrapped packet of hamburger in the supermarket meat section with something that eats grass and goes “moo.”

Thus modern-minded clergymen are wont to shake their heads sagely and observe that the agricultural metaphors Jesus employs to illustrate his message are completely lost on a majority of folks today. Indeed, this is an argument that is frequently used to advance the cause of “modernizing” scripture and making it more “relevant to ordinary people.”

Frankly, I don’t buy it—and not just because “ordinary people” aren’t that dumb. The fact of the matter is that familiarity with things agricultural can sometimes make it more difficult to understand quite what Jesus is getting at.

As a small boy, for example, I found it hard to understand why Jesus would want to describe himself as a “Good Shepherd.” It seemed a singularly inappropriate metaphor for the Son of God. I was well acquainted with shepherds and they really didn’t conform with my idea of Jesus. In large part it was a question of image: The shepherds I knew didn’t look at all like the Jesus depicted in my picture books.

My shepherds tended to dress—winter and summer—in a vast assortment of odd knitted garments, topped by an ancient and extremely greasy raincoat and an equally greasy cloth cap. What’s more, in their work clothes, shepherds exuded the decidedly unappetizing odor of sheep. For this reason alone, they weren’t the sort of folk that people would be inclined to follow—into a wilderness, up a mountain, or anywhere else for that matter.

Surely Jesus could have chosen a better way of describing himself—“the Good Ploughman,” “the Good Dairyman,” or “the Good Gamekeeper,” for example? Such names had style!

As things stood, I simply couldn’t picture Jesus preaching and performing miracles while clad in rubber boots, a mound of unraveling sweaters, a greasy raincoat and a cloth cap.

It wasn’t until much later that I discovered how wrong I had been about shepherds and how apt the “Good Shepherd” metaphor is. Shepherds are a tough and dedicated bunch. It takes skill, courage, and a good deal of compassion to handle a flock in a bitter cold lambing season.

Shepherding also requires an element of saintliness, too. There are no dumb animals dumber than sheep. Looking after their wants would, indeed, try the patience of a saint.

And a shepherd’s job in First Century Judea was far tougher than it was in mid-20th Century rural England. Its terrain was such that, at any moment, the sheep were at risk of being swept away by a mountain torrent, carried off by hill bandits, or ravaged by wolves or the Judean lion.

If the landscape was harsh, so was the weather: pitiless showers, driving snows, and parching heat. A shepherd’s life was on the line every minute of the day.

In such circumstances, there grows up between shepherd and flock a profound relationship of tenderness and trust. Unlike their European and American counterparts, shepherds in the Holy Land don’t drive their flocks. They lead them and—so complete is the bond of trust—the sheep unhesitatingly follow.

This is the relationship between God and mankind that Jesus is depicting with his “Good Shepherd” metaphor.

Sadly, however, people compare rather badly with sheep. For all their faults, sheep are usually capable of recognizing a good shepherd when they see one. But you can’t always say that of human beings. GPHX✠

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