This is an uncomfortable truth to swallow because our society yearns for a strong leader who will save them; someone who is decisive, knows where they are going and does not change their mind despite calls to alter course. Perhaps it started with the myth surrounding Winston Churchill of resolute, flint-jawed certainty in the face of peril. Whether true or not, it has ended with most high profile public leaders feeling the need to look tough and never admit to doubt. It is not just the business leader. Politicians, journalists and football managers are celebrated the more unyielding and inflexible they prove as this must surely be a sign that they are right and so we can relax, confident in the hope that the economy is safe or our team will avoid relegation.
The myth of the strong man who holds everything together where others can’t is comforting, even though there is so much bitter experience of people who promised much and delivered little. The vicious circle of needing a saviour, finding one and ultimately being disappointed by them leads to the kind of cynicism which corrodes our common life.
Why do we yearn for the strong person? Perhaps because we really need one:
When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd (Matthew 9:36).
This is Matthew’s observation of the people who milled around Jesus, either in hope of something better or out of innate curiosity. To be swept up in such an excited crowd around a proven miracle worker must have felt intoxicating from the inside. To the person who took a step back, the crowd may have looked sad and bewildered. This was a people that had lost its way: living lives without understanding why; coping with guilt without finding absolution; enduring fear without finding peace. This is what the sheep look like without a shepherd.
This is the background to Jesus’ saying in John 10. ‘I am the good shepherd’ he says. ‘The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep’. The concept of leadership which Jesus offers here is compellingly different to the notion of the ‘strong man’ that we enshrine today. This is the curious thing about Jesus. The Gospels define for us a man of exceptionally charged charisma, power and wisdom beyond the reach of ordinary mortals, yet the self-description of Jesus is markedly other. In creating this image of a shepherd, Jesus identified himself with a lowly, rural, working class. Those who worked in the fields were exposed to hardships the wealthier classes could avoid. The threats which wild animals posed were as much to the shepherds as the sheep; a life lived so close to the land, as usual, so much less romantic than the ideal we imagine.
The leadership which Jesus offers is, paradoxically, one of service and sacrifice. It is unassuming, difficult and dangerous and it meets with a treacherous end. The Victorian cricketer and Christian missionary had a saying: if Jesus Christ be Son of God and died for me, no sacrifice can be too small for me to make for him. Our familiarity with this truth should not blind us complacently to its implication. God, in Christ, chose to die for us so that we might be saved – just like the shepherd who distracts the wolves from the helpless sheep at the cost of his own life. Other people have laid down their life for their community, but none with such effect. It is not just that Jesus behaved like a shepherd in sacrificing himself for us; it is that he is alive again to guide us lovingly through this hazardous world.
We are endlessly self-deceiving as a human race, imagining ourselves to be strong and self-assured. The truth is so different. We are tired, anxious and afraid more than we care to name but the beauty of the Gospel is that it’s OK to admit that. God knows us inside out; he knows exactly what we kind of problems and moods we endure: the worries about money; the anxiety over children; the fear of illness; the stress of conflict. We cling to our problems like a comfort blanket, as if we could not possibly be separated from them, and so deprive ourselves of the zest and energy that comes from allowing the Holy Spirit to fill us. Our lives are double sided like an old vinyl album. On side one we sing our praises to God and give every impression of joy and contentment in the faith. Turn the album over and side two is full of the blues, mournful and burdensome and like any cool, indie rocker, we only ever really play this side, making the music of our lives plaintiff and depressed.
We will always have sadness to cope with, but the Good Shepherd lives to guide us through this hostile terrain and to lift our spirits with his powerful presence. And he wishes his people to minister one to another with the kind of sacrifice and sensitivity he shows us in spades. Mostly we are very preoccupied with our own needs. Our worries nag at us like tinnitus in the ears, making us deaf to the tone of other voices. Around us lie people who are just as harassed and helpless as we are. What if we were able to hear the silent cries of others as crisply as our own? It is not as hard as we might think to do this. The sacrifice that God is calling us to is merely to look, to listen, to ask and to pray. Christian community is formed where the voices of the harassed and the helpless are heard and their needs are enfolded in the flock which only the Good Shepherd has the grace to lead.