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The Filthy Shepherd

You wouldn’t want your boy to be a shepherd when he grew up.

It was a lonely life, watching over the sheep. Cold days and colder nights spent huddled on the rocky hillsides, with nothing but a small fire and some burnt coffee to keep you warm. Always hungry.

Always one bad day away from being penniless.

In the old days, it had been an honorable profession. But that was centuries before new towns and cities sprang up and pushed shepherds to they very edges of society. To be a shepherd was better than to be a slave, barely.

To be called a “shepherd” was to be cursed for life. Stereotyped as a liar and a thief. Stripped of legal rights and protection. Shunned in the streets and markets. Forgotten.

And yet, that’s the name Jesus chose for himself. 

In the centuries since the Gospels were penned, the word “shepherd” has lost its sting. Rather than a cursed profession, it’s become an attractive religious idea. It brings to mind images of youngsters awkwardly costumed in old bedsheets and towels during Christmas pageants.

It’s a title of honor bestowed on the head pastor of churches. And of course the subject of a thousand paintings, a milky white Jesus who spends his days relaxing by gentle brooks and apparently moisturizing his soft, glowy skin.

Jesus once said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” 

This wasn’t a vague, pious statement. Jesus was identifying with the lowest, loneliest, members of society. The helpless. The hurting. The broken. Just as He did when He took a towel and washed the mud and manure off His friends’ feet. When he befriended drunkards. When He ate dinner with thieves. When He died with criminals.

You wouldn’t expect this from a god. He should have walked the marble hallways of palaces. He should have basked in the acclaim of religious teachers.

But our God became a shepherd. Not the glowy, beautiful shepherd of religious paintings. A shepherd like this:

A broken, lonely shepherd. Scarred. Hungry. Despised and rejected by his fellow men.

I imagine when Jesus said “I am the good shepherd”, it shocked those who heard it. His disciples probably starting whispering amongst themselves (they always did).

Merchants scoffed. His political enemies grinned. Curious onlookers decided they had heard enough, and quickly disappeared.

After all, you wouldn’t want your boy to be a shepherd when he grew up. 

But God did. 

[ image: simon dewey ]

originally published January 2013

published June 17, 2014

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