In common with most babies and toddlers, they are very cute and very vulnerable. Oh, I’m obviously talking about lambs! These days a lot of them run carefree in the fields; but the moment they spot danger, like a big man walking his dog, they run to their respective mothers and – oddly enough – suck them for comfort. I guess that gives them a sense of safety and security. That’s my educated guess, but it’s a guess nevertheless because my knowledge of farming is limited to say the least. Yes, I’m of that generation on the verge of extinction which still knows where our food comes from. (A note for the young: it’s not from the supermarket.) But more and more in our increasingly urban and digital society, people know less and less about farming, fishing and agriculture. Perhaps the best and most famous consumable industry in our area is whisky production, thanks to a good number of visitor centres and tours of distilleries throughout Speyside.
The urbanisation of our society makes understanding parts of the Bible more difficult, even impenetrable, as it uses many images, comparisons and metaphors based on an agrarian way of life. When you add to the mix the farming and agricultural practices of the past, which are entirely different from modern ones, the point of the message can get lost in translation. In today’s gospel reading Jesus calls himself the ‘Good Shepherd’, and describes the qualities required to justify that claim. But for a variety of good reasons that ‘job description’ for shepherds isn’t implemented by modern-day sheep farmers in Scotland. Of course, we understand that Jesus isn’t actually giving us instructions on how to look after sheep. He uses the image to talk about shepherding the faithful: those who believe in Jesus. And here’s another problem of modern times in the West.
For millennia an individual was invariably a member of a particular tribe or nation, and the interest of the whole collective was far more important than that of an individual – with the exception of tyrants, kings, dictators and the like. The lower the societal rank, the more dispensable the individual was. But in around the 18th century that model started to change with the Enlightenment. The rights of the individual began to come to the fore and gradually to take precedence over the rights of sovereigns, states and society. The tangible expression of such a dramatic shift was a crop of official documents called the Constitution. The most famous is that of the United States of America, but there were others promulgated in many countries in Europe. The aspect common to all those constitutions was the safeguarding of the rights of the individual over against governmental omnipotence. Since the Enlightenment those rights have gradually evolved to such an extent that sometimes someone’s selfishness effectively takes precedence over the legitimate interests of others. Such focus on the rights of the individual inevitably reshaped the pastoral care of priestly ministry.
In the ‘good old days’ a minister of religion was not only allowed to be a sort of pushy and demanding autocrat, asking uncomfortable questions of his parishioners and sometimes ‘chasing’ them if they failed to appear in the pew, but it was also expected of him! The behaviour was an expression of power, justified by too-literal a reading of today’s gospel. In this day and age such an approach can be found so offensive, either in terms of a breach of privacy or as an invasion of personal space, to such an extent that – in a worst-case scenario – the alleged perpetrator can end up in court. Furthermore, there’s a practical difficulty that I and my colleagues have to deal with. While some parishioners presume that I should seek them out when they haven’t been to church for a while, others don’t wish to be sought out or contacted. Because I am faced with that dilemma, today’s gospel and similar passages in the Bible make uncomfortable reading for me. On the one hand, my ministry makes sense only when I serve others as best as I can. On the other hand, as a product of the Enlightenment, I strongly believe in the right to one’s self-determination – and don’t want to breach that right of anyone. I am telling about all this, not because I’m looking for your sympathy: I’m quite accomplished at self-pity. I’m telling you all this because I want to let you know that I’m more than happy to be of help and assistance to you whenever you need me. In practical terms that means: ‘please tell me when you need me’. I’m not gifted with guessing how you feel or mind-reading. Unlike God, whom I serve, I have to be told when I’m needed.