REVISED from April 21, 2018
The ancient Hebrew Scriptures (our “Old Testament”) provide rich symbols for the Reign of God over His people: God is “the King,” in the sense of the rightful ruler by whom all human rulers are measured, and found wanting; God is “the Holy One of Israel,” the true standard, fulfillment, and joy of His people, who liberates from evil and sin; and God is the Good Shepherd, who guides and nourishes His people, even as He punishes and destroys those who betray and mislead His people. In chapter 10 of St. John’s Gospel, Jesus applies the symbol of “the Good Shepherd” to Himself, as He works for God, under God, with God, and is in truth the embodiment of God in humanity: “I AM the Good Shepherd, who lays down His life for His sheep.” Good shepherding is personally costly; otherwise, it is spurious.
Any one who goes by the name of “pastor” or “shepherd,” working in Christ’s body, and particularly in the churches, must seek to “shepherd My people rightly,” seeking their spiritual well-being, and not “fleecing” them for money or for benefits, as the prophet Ezekiel strongly warns. What is it that keeps a pastor or shepherd from fulfilling God’s will and the divine assignment to “shepherd My people”? A pastoral letters attributed to the Apostle Paul warns, “the love of money is the root of all evil.” And we should add to that: the love of power, the desire to dominate others, utterly betrays genuine pastoral ministry in the Church. Examples of such betrayals can readily be found in the history of the various churches, and are usually not hard to find—even as “evil loves to hide,” and is often shamelessly covered up by those in high places. To any priest or minister who has fleeced Christ’s people, rather than diligently sought to build them up in faith, hope, and love, the biblical warnings are strong. In St. Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus most sternly warns: “whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” False shepherds, fake pastors, parents or teachers who betray their sacred trust, all stand warned by Jesus Christ Himself. And this warning to those who work under Christ for the well-being of His people is an essential part of Christ as the Good Shepherd. For the Good Shepherd shows most of us to have been less than good shepherds, and often as derelict of duties, fleecers, abusers, even destroyers of human beings.
The Good Shepherd is the just Judge: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad” (II Cor 5:10). Because the Good Shepherd is the measure of humanity, each of us must ever examine himself or herself in light of Christ. We must not presume that we will be let off lightly because we were “ordained,” or called “priest” while on earth—or granted the gift to be a parent or teacher. On the contrary, Christ warns us: “To whom much is given, much is required” (Luke 12:48). Woe to me if I have lead anyone in our parishes astray. It will not go well with me in eternity if I have chosen ill-begotten gain and the lust to dominate others, or to use others for my benefit, rather than continually and faithfully seek the spiritual well-being of those entrusted to my care.
Jesus as the Good Shepherd remains the model and the measure of the Church. When we spend ourselves in lovingkindness for others, when we seek the genuine well-being of ourselves and of each other, when we speak the truth regardless of the cost to us personally, when we restrain ourselves from evil and do good, then Christ’s rule as Good Shepherd is effective in and through us. But when we in the Church deceive people, and lie, and steal from parishioners, or cover up crimes, or neglect the spiritual welfare of those in our care because we are too much “in love with the world,” then we must know and understand with shocking clarity that the “day of the LORD will suddenly overtake us,” and we risk having Christ declare: “Get away from me, you evil-doer, into the everlasting fire” (cf. Matthew 7:23). Brothers and sisters, each of us stands warned. And this warning is part of the role of “shepherding my people rightly.” Despite churchianity, it is not all sweetness and flowers.
May the all-good God have mercy on us, and help us genuinely to repent, change our ways, and seek the spiritual and human well-being of one another. The Good Shepherd demands this action of us.