Sunday, August 28, 2011

Shepherd My People

Exodus 3:1-15
Matthew 16:21-28

"One aspect of the moral life is not concerned with man's relationship with his fellow beings but with his relationship with animals. Since even the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments) show consideration for dumb creatures and commands that they too should be allowed the Sabbath rest ... one expects to find the Talmud also teaching that lesson."

"Indeed the way a man treats animals is an index to his character. 'When Moses shepherded the flocks of Jethro, he kept the old sheep back because of the young ones and let these loose first to feed on the tender grass; then he let the others loose to feed on the grass of average quality; lastly he let the strong ones loose to feed on the tough grass. The Holy One, blessed be He, said, 'Let him who knows how to shepherd the flock, each according to its strength, come and lead My people.'" Everyman's Talmud, Abraham Cohen, pg 235

There is another story in the Talmud that speaks of Moses' heart as well. "A goat kid ran away and Moses pursued it until it came to a tree where there chanced to be a pool of water. The kid stood there to drink and when Moses overtook it he said, 'I did not know you ran away because you were thirsty. You must also be tired.' So he set the kid upon his shoulder and carried it back. The Holy One, blessed be He, said, 'Since you are merciful to the flock of a human being, you shall be the shepherd of My flock, Israel.'"

Is it only a legend that Moses was chosen to lead Israel because he was kind to animals? It could be, but it is more likely that the integrity of Moses' character and goodness of his heart were made manifest in how he treated animals. Such stories passed from generation to generation give life to legends, but it must also be remembered that the Jewish Talmud is much more than a "legal commentary" on Torah; it also contains the "oral traditions", stories that have been passed faithfully from generation to generation according to the mandates of Torah and Moses.

I do not pretend to be a scholar on Jewish literature or scripture and my assessment may be a little overly simplified, but these stories - and others like these - as to Moses' true character reveal much more than what we Christians may have previously known or even considered about Moses. More significantly, I don't think such stories make Moses himself any bigger than he really was because he was still, after all, just a man even if the parting of the Red Sea is probably what we remember first about Moses. Instead we are taught through such writings that there is much more to any one of us than what meets the eye. These stories and legends point to something much bigger than any individual person or humanity as a whole. We are offered a glimpse into the "divine design" that further proves the Lord's plan of deliverance.

As highly revered as Moses is, however, and regardless of whether he is worthy of such reverence is not - or should not - be the point of looking so closely into his life or his character. Clearly the Lord thought very highly of Moses as did Israel. What seems clearer still after such a consideration of stories like these is that even though we have all been endowed with spiritual gifts, we must also have the heart necessary to use these gifts appropriately. Maybe this is the lesson the rabbis sought to teach through these stories. It is not necessarily that Moses had a particular "gift" for shepherding but instead possessed the compassionate heart of a shepherd, one who is charged with the well-being of the flock over and above his own well-being. It may well be that Moses was chosen precisely for this reason even though he also clearly felt inadequate for the job.

So then I often wonder if the reason the Church seems to be faltering and more people are withdrawing from church life AND/OR the Church altogether is because too many of us feel inadequate for the daunting task of being the Church. St. Paul emphasizes spiritual gifts and we can reasonably see that these gifts differ from one person to the next, but the task of "making disciples of Christ for the transformation of the WORLD" is a little overwhelming. It's a big job because it is a big world! So just as Moses must have felt inadequate for what would surely be the biggest thing the world had seen up to that point, maybe it is we are not seriously considering how large a role the Lord would play in our task of "making disciples" - IF - we were to faithfully follow His lead rather than expect the Lord to follow our lead and support our choices.

Notice the exchange between Peter and Jesus (Matthew 16:21-28). Peter surely meant well in his insistence that Jesus must never surrender to those who were intent on destroying Him. Surely Peter believed Jesus could do much more good alive than dead. Surely Peter loved Jesus and only wanted to protect his beloved Friend. And though we might consider that Jesus was a little harsh with Peter - calling him "Satan"?? - Peter and the disciples needed to be reminded in very clear terms that there is ONE road to righteousness - and only one; not several - just One. And this road is much more demanding that simply professing a vague belief; it is the road marked by our willingness to take up our own "cross" - the "cross" that requires our very lives.

There are clearly other alternatives, other much safer and easier choices we can make, but Jesus draws a clear "line in the sand" as to what constitutes the righteous path, the one righteous choice we can make - and that is to follow Him in His life, in His teachings, and even in His death - that is, giving completely of self for the sake of something much greater. It is just as Jesus did at the Cross. He gave up His earthly life for something much greater even than Himself, but He gained Life by freely giving His own mortal life.

For us this is a hard thing to comprehend because we are taught early on - and the Church and our culture even solidify this - that we are to protect our lives at all cost. We don't freely walk into certain neighborhoods because of perceived danger even though we reasonably know there are other lives at stake, innocent victims - mostly young, impressionable children - of a culture that validates the worth of a human being only according to what can be taken from another. They have been culturally conditioned to believe that money is power, and power is what validates a life worth living. They have been convinced through the neglect of the Church that they can only depend on themselves - and that perhaps others must die so they may live.

They lack a shepherd, a true shepherd with a compassionate heart who would disregard his own well-being first for their well-being. These victims know only the shepherd who herds by threats, intimidation, bribery, or the business end of a loaded weapon. These are the shepherds who lead and gather only according to what they can first glean for themselves, and these are the shepherds who will only allow certain "kinds" into their flocks. These shepherds will abandon a flock stranded in a pasture that is used up while they feed on the "good grass" first. And if you think I am speaking exclusively of poverty-stricken drug- or gang-infested neighborhoods, you would be mistaken.

There is not a soul in this town who does not "need" a compassionate, selfless shepherd even though they may not "want" one, but this is entirely beside the point Jesus is making. He is facing an entire world that does not seem to "want" a shepherd even though we reasonably know the "need" is as great now as it was then. This is the call and commission of the Church, the Body of Christ.

Disciples must possess the heart of a shepherd - this is "discipleship" - for the shepherd's heart is the compassionate and sacred heart of the Good Shepherd. It is not simply a choice we Americans get to make - it is the ONLY choice of the righteous ... in the Holy and Blessed name of the Righteous One. Amen.

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