One of the most beloved images of Jesus is of him as the good shepherd. I have in mind a painting of a very handsome Jesus carrying a little sheep on his shoulders. It is a touching image that might bring up tender feelings from our past. But the reality of Jesus as the good shepherd has to be understood in the light of how Jesus described his role: “I lay down my life for my sheep.” For Jesus, the role of shepherd is a matter of life and death.
Some years ago, while making a retreat at St. Francis Retreat House in Pennsylvania, I gained a different understanding of Jesus as the shepherd. The image is very clear in my mind. Jesus is struggling up a mountainside. His pained face is covered in sweat. In the process of his climb, it is easy to see his torn and soiled tunic. His bloody feet are cut by the sharp rocks as he makes his way up that mountain. This was no easy search or quick rescue.
Also startling was that the lamb Jesus is seeking has found its way to an isolated place at the edge of the precipice. It is inches from falling to a horrible death. The lamb is looking at Jesus with the most forlorn look in its eyes that seems to say, “Lord, I’m stuck. Now what do I do?”
As I reflected on Jesus’ face, I could only imagine him saying, “Don’t move! Don’t look down! I’ll rescue you!”
Here with Us
The image of the good shepherd is better linked with Jesus’ suffering and death for our sake. There was nothing sentimental about Jesus’ experience on Good Friday. Perhaps even more startling is the fact that, while he died for all humankind, he would have died if you or I had been the only person on earth who needed redemption.
How is it possible that God, in the flesh, would lay down his life for us? Perhaps it lies in what we cannot fathom: each of us is God’s child—each one of us is Jesus’ brother. Every human is precious in the eyes of God. We don’t deserve, nor could we ever merit, such love from God. But that is the very point: Jesus died because he loves us.
There are times in our lives when we face major struggles. Whether we are the cause of them or they are beyond our control, we often cry out, “Lord, where are you?” We may not realize it, but the Lord’s answer is, “I’m right here with you.”
So the next time you see the image of the good shepherd, let it bring to mind the painting I described. There are no disposable humans that God creates. Jesus died for all—including you and me.