“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me.” John 10:14, NIV
The Bible was written at a time when society was primarily agrarian. Prophets spoke in terms the people could relate to. Images of farm and field were easily understood, because these were snapshots of daily life. The seasons of the year revolved around planting and the gestation cycles of livestock, and daily activities often focused on the feeding and care of animals. The shepherd played a vital role in those activities. Sheep left to themselves face all manner of dangers. They face predation and more passive, natural hazards, like swift flowing streams and toxic plants. They might even simply wander off and become separated from the flock. The shepherd needed to keep a keen eye for all of these dangers.
A poor shepherd might become irritated with the sheep and their propensity to get into trouble. He might even feel the need to punish the sheep he felt were errant. The sheep would sense his hostility and might follow him out of fear but would probably not be drawn to such a person. The sheep would fear him, and his job would be harder because instead of following his guidance, they would be afraid and watching for his rod. He could never earn their trust by making sure they got the punishment they deserved. He could only earn their outward obedience, but not their hearts.
A good shepherd will have empathy and compassion for the sheep. Instead of being bothered by the constant needs of the sheep, he would anticipate those needs and make sure they are met. He might even try to think like a sheep in order to better understand why they do what they do. When faced with predators, he would protect the flock as he would his family. Each loss would be more than just a financial tally. It would be a heart wound, as he would know each sheep by name and would remember them as distinct individuals and not simply a homogenous flock. The good shepherd would make sure they got the best food and water, just as he would desire for his own needs. If a sheep became injured, he would not see it as the next candidate for the cooking pot, but would instead tenderly nurse it back to health. It may be easy to see why Jesus referred to Himself as the Good Shepherd.1 His care for us easily exceeds that standard.
Perhaps we could better understand the level of his compassion if we consider whether even a good shepherd would continue to care for and nurture the sheep if they were continually trying to kill him. Yet this is what Jesus did and continues to do. Under those circumstances, we might find it easy to understand the poor shepherd in his desire to punish the sheep for their behavior. Our natural desire might be to exact vengeance against such hostile sheep. This somehow seems right to us, even biblical,2 and maybe that is why we so often portray God in this way. Maybe we want a God who is just like us. But Jesus revealed that this God we have created in our image is not how God really is. He made it clear that instead of creating God in our image, we should reflect His.3
Many in Christendom look forward with hope to the Parousia. Like sheep who long for their faithful shepherd, we look forward to His arrival to lead us to green pastures and still waters.4 And like sheep we also seem helpless to improve our lot now. But should we be? If God gives us His Spirit5 and that Spirit gives us compassion and love toward others6 is that not a beachhead for the Second Coming? Is His presence not already manifested through the Holy Spirit and that Spirit’s machinations in our hearts?
In World War II when General Douglas MacArthur returned to the Philippines, the message quickly spread that He had returned. The return had been promised when he left and that promise was continually reasserted by message while he waited in Australia for the right moment. When he did return, the war did not end right away, and the Philippines were not declared liberated for another eight months, in May of 1945.7 Before he returned, the Filipinos themselves resisted Japanese occupation and did what they could to assist with keeping communications open between MacArthur in Australia and those still resisting.8 In a sense they were the embodiment of the expected return in the anticipation of the reality. For those fighting in the jungles of Luzon and elsewhere, they lived that reality. Their commitment to it and their willingness to die for that commitment may have been no less than the commitment Jesus demonstrated on the cross. Their sacrifice is diminished only in the respect that while they died to benefit the good, patriotic people who they felt would follow them, Jesus died to benefit His enemies.9 In so doing, some of those enemies came to also look forward to the Parousia.
The re-characterization of God manifest in the life of Jesus, not only redefined the relationship between God and man, through this beachhead the Kingdom of God burst into our world. This was no external kingdom, but a kingdom of the heart.10 There is no lasting external, physical change without first there being a change of the heart. As mankind misunderstood God’s character, so they also misunderstood the nature of the kingdom. Looking for outward signs that conformed to utopian ideals they had regarding the Kingdom of God and the Messiah, they were unable to discern the blossoming of the Spirit in people’s hearts as the subjects of the kingdom were made manifest. Instead of rejoicing at the presence and the power of this spiritual kingdom, they bristled at the threat it posed to their misconceptions. Truth was shining a light into their darkened hearts and what was discovered there frightened them. They determined it was better to extinguish that light and keep things hidden.
Little has changed since that time. Light and dark continue to be in opposition. Wherever there is obfuscation and hidden agendas, we can be sure there is also darkness. The Kingdom of God is all light. There is nothing about the Spirit that needs to be hidden away or kept secret. We might be tempted to think that most would want to walk in that light where truth rules and lies have no place, but sadly, such is not the case. The Bible tells us that mankind for the most part actually could not recognize the Light and chose not to receive it.11 Nonetheless, a few did turn toward that Light. They responded to the Spirit and became citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, and as the Light dawned in their hearts, they in turn became lights revealing the true character of God and His kingdom. As the image of God’s character multiplied, the kingdom grew and spread over the face of the earth.
Just as MacArthur’s return to the Philippines was mostly seen in the person of those under his command, so Jesus return is most evident in the person of the citizens of His kingdom. If his followers truly are alight with His compassion and love, then His coming is very real as well. In the comfort delivered to every sorrowing soul who has lost a loved one, the Parousia is revealed. For every hungry child that finally receives enough to eat, the Parousia is revealed. For every homeless vagrant who finds shelter and warmth, Jesus has truly come.
When Jesus and his disciples came preaching the Kingdom of God, they did not intend that we should ignore the needs around us and simply hunker down and wait for some future deliverance. We have no right to toss away this earth that we have been given, because we know He will give us another. Perhaps a danger in doing that is that we will cease to care about people as well. The Kingdom of God is not some type of private club where certain ones have a key to the door and “Oh, well, too bad,” about the rest. We also are not expected to guard the door to keep the riff raff out but rather to open the door so that all may enter. It is for the Master of the feast to determine who belongs, not us.12 Our work is simply to take the light out into the world, into the streets and gather in all the people we can find, both the bad and the good.13 As can be seen, there is no need for us to be discerning judges when it does not matter whether those we call into the kingdom are good or bad.
Are we troubled by a kingdom that allows “that sort” into its ranks? If we feel that way, is it possible that we ourselves are “that sort?” We might do well to review the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector.14