On Faith: The good shepherd of comfort and discomfort

A framed image of Jesus, presented as the Good Shepherd, hung from the wall of my childhood bedroom. He stood in a verdant pasture, staff in hand, lovingly providing for and sheltering the sheep of his flock gathered around him.

That picture shaped my sense of who Jesus is, of who God is.

For me, a long-time parish priest, that biblical image continues to be my tutor, providing form and direction to what, I believe, should be the role and character of a Christian pastor. It is, as well, an instructive image for all Christians.

For religious Jews and Muslims, God exceeds all possibility of definition or imaging. As a result, they do not permit images of the divine.

For them, squeezing infinity into the human person who is Jesus is positing the impossible. Many Christians who visit a synagogue, temple or mosque, experience the space as being somewhat empty for its contrasting absence of images, unlike traditional Christian churches replete with statues and paintings.

But that design decision is totally consistent and understandable.

We Christians choose an image-filled path for our spiritual nourishment, though it is not without difficulties. In our imagination we tend to limit God to several images of our choosing, thus imposing our limited definition on God who is beyond definition.

My preferred image of God as Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is fully legitimate, but by itself incomplete. I must give hospitality to all the other biblical images, including those I might not particularly welcome.

Even with a full portfolio of images I cannot fully describe and contain God. We come back to the immensity of God and the consequent impossibility of confining God within our chosen assemblage of images.

The Jewish Scriptures provide so many rich images of God that are not easily reconciled, thus inclining the unthoughtful person to rapid dismissal. The serious reader, however, is called to attentive study and prayerful reflection on those sacred texts.

Surely at funerals and many other occasions, people inside and outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition have been consoled by the delicate beauty of the 23rd Psalm, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. In verdant pastures he gives me repose."

The New Testament evangelists — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — each have a somewhat different lens through which they see Jesus and present him to us. Their kaleidoscope of images have, throughout the centuries, fed the imagination of artists, musicians, and poets who, in turn, have given form and expression to so much of the world's cultures and traditions.

Unwittingly, in a confusion of roles, many of us Christians subordinate Jesus to the role of being our aide, uncritically supporting and promoting our cause, whatever that be.

He is the good guy who causes no embarrassment at our cocktail parties, a regular weekend surfer such as ourselves, one who approvingly signs off on the business transactions of church-going Christians. He would vote for our political party. He makes us feel good. And he supplies the touchdown pass I pray for.

The difficulty with such impoverished descriptions is that they do not line up with God as revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus is indeed shepherd, healer, comforter and more.

But the shepherd also gives every pious person reason to squirm. Religious authorities and state authorities colluded to kill Jesus because the integrity of his life exposed their mendacity and callousness in not hearing the cry of the poor.

For them, the status quo was just fine. All systems should be maintained such as to privilege the privileged. Contrary persons should be ridiculed, if not removed.

Religious leaders accused Jesus of welcoming public sinners, despised tax collectors, pagans and other reprobates, even eating with them. He called all to add mercy upon mercy, to forgive not just seven times but 70 times seven times. In an alpha-male society he enjoyed tender friendships with women, and to those who were outcasts he brought protection, respect, wisdom and healing.

He did more than give advice to the sick and hungry; he brought them healing, food and dignity, insisting that we should do the same.

A man of peace, he did not like weapons and directed Peter, who had come to his defense, to put down the sword. Courageous and principled, he did not cower when arrested but instead rebuked Pilate, perhaps being the only one ever to do so: "You would have no power over me whatever if it were not given you from above."

To this day, the Good Shepherd kicks up the dust of our carefully fenced and manicured pastures.

Jesus fascinates both believer and non-believer. We who believe in him do well when we leave the door of our imagination open wide so as to welcome him in his inexhaustible richness, thus finding companionship and comfort — and liberating discomfort.

MSGR. WILBUR DAVIS is in-residence at Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church, Newport Beach.

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