So begins the most well-known and treasured Psalm of all time. At hospital beds, it is recited by patients and chaplains alike. In times of distress and discomfort, its soothing words are meant to bring succor and peace.
It is supposed to be a comfort, to consider the Lord our shepherd.
But, to be honest, God is an awful shepherd.
In Luke, Jesus tells a story of a shepherd who loses one sheep. So, having lost the sheep, the shepherd leaves the flock in the wilderness untended to go in search of the lost one, refusing to return to the 99 until that one is found.
Which one of you, Jesus asks, wouldn’t do the same?
That’s an easy question to answer. No one would do that. No decent shepherd would leave the bleating flock of 99 sheep in the wilderness where predators and poachers abound in order to find the lost one. It’s not like the sheep are safely fenced in. It’s not like the shepherd knows where the lost sheep has gone. It’s not like the shepherd even knows when he will be returning to the flock. He only knows he won’t return until he finds that one sheep — which will likely be dead and eaten by wild animals by the time it is found.
No shepherd would risk the flock — his livelihood — for the sake of one errant sheep in the wild. It is excessive, foolhardy. No shepherd would do something so irredeemably irresponsible.
At least no decent shepherd.
The most disturbing image of this parable, however, is what happens once the lost sheep is found. The shepherd returns to his home — not to the flock! Carrying his sheep, he goes home to celebrate with his friends and neighbors that what has been lost has now been found.
Meanwhile, the 99 continue to wander and bleat in the wilderness without a shepherd.
The Lord is my shepherd? Thanks, but no thanks.
God is an awful shepherd.
Because as soon as I join the flock, the shepherd is lost. Perhaps we should think of this parable in those terms, not the parable of the lost sheep, but the parable of the lost shepherd.
Because the shepherd has truly lost his way in this story, lost all sense of right and wrong, responsibility and consequence.
The shepherd is so lost to love and extravagance that he shirks his responsibility to the 99 for the sake of the one.
The shepherd is lost.
Maybe, in this parable, that is the call for the sheep that remain: To get lost, too. The problem is we are too often perfectly happy to bleat in the wilderness with the other 99, ignoring the dangers around us, ignoring the shepherd who has left us. There is comfort in the herd with its illusion of security.
But the shepherd is missing. To find the shepherd, the sheep must leave the fold. To find the shepherd, the sheep must leave and get utterly and profoundly lost in the world.
Find the lost sheep and we will find the shepherd. Where one is, the other is there also. If one is in the presence of the lost sheep, one is in the presence of God, for where one is lost, alone, alienated, marginalized and oppressed, there also is God. To find the shepherd, the sheep must be among, one of, in solidarity with those that the 99 have forgotten, those the 99 have ignored, those that the 99 have judged, those the 99 have left for dead and believed not worth the effort.
For too long we’ve gotten it backwards. We do not bring the lost sheep to God. Rather, the lost sheep bring us to God.
When I read this story — and the two others in its context — I can’t help but puzzle at them all, with their overarching themes of God’s transgressive and indiscriminate love. These stories seem to reject my religious sensibilities of orthodoxy and even orthopraxy. It casts an image of God so loving as to be completely unconcerned with consequences and punishment for sin and wrongdoing.
It is a love so profound as to be amoral.
Does it matter how we live? Certainly. Does our tradition and the Jesus of the Gospels want us to live in certain ways — say following the Golden Rule? Without a doubt. But none of that — the ethical code, the morals by which we are to live or our ability to follow them — affects God’s love toward us.
Because God’s love is amoral. It isn’t concerned with morals, codes and ethics. It isn’t concerned with our rightness or wrongness. Rather, it is concerned with our belovedness.
But that is no way to shepherd the sheep and certainly no way to rear sons, right?
Because, ultimately, we believe like Machiavelli, that as a ruler, it is better to be feared than to be loved, that consequences and punishment keep the world in line.
The way God shepherds the sheep?
That is no way to run the world.
Which, in the end, I suppose is just fine.
God isn’t running the world, after all.
God is loving it.
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