The Worthless Shepherd of a Doomed Flock
'I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled.'
The 50 days of Easter are a time of joy and hope for the Church. Resurrection, redemption, ascension, and love- these are all good Easter themes. Choosing new disciples to witness to the resurrection, as happens in the reading from Acts today- this is a good Easter story. 'Whoever has the Son has life', 'sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth': these are all good Easter lines. 'Be a shepherd of the flock doomed to slaughter', however- this is a less obvious Easter verse. And yet it is a verse which runs implicitly through the readings for this Sunday.
'A shepherd of the flock doomed to slaughter'- it's not a verse we've heard from the lectern today. Where is it from? And who does it refer to? Well, that depends- it depends on whether we take seriously the claims found in Acts and John, that Judas' betrayal of Christ both fulfilled and was foretold in Scripture. It depends on whether we then look to Matthew's citation of Jeremiah, and agree with those who think that it is in fact a misquotation of Zechariah 11:12, which runs as follows- 'then I said to them, “if it seems right to you, give me my wages; but if not, keep them.” So they weighed out as my wages thirty shekels of silver.' And it depends on whether we allow that human misquotation can convey divine significance- for this passage is found in the middle of the narration of one tasked to be the shepherd of a flock doomed to slaughter- one who is castigated by God as the worthless shepherd. For if we accept each of these ideas, each of which is plausible in itself, then it would appear that the shepherd of the flock doomed to slaughter is none other than Judas Iscariot.
We cannot tell the story of the resurrection and the fulfilment of scripture without implicitly referring to Judas' betrayal of Jesus Christ- and though Easter is a season of redemption and joy, not penitence and mourning, the readings today should provoke reflection on this betrayal. In the Gospel reading we hear Christ praying for the protection of the disciples in a hostile world- but we also hear that one was lost, even under his protection. In Acts, we hear that the Holy Spirit through David had foretold Judas' betrayal, and that the Scripture had to be fulfilled. Let us ask, then, how are we understand this shepherd in the context of Eastertide? Let us ask- when we hear prayers of protection in the Gospel, promises of eternal life in the Epistle, and the selection of disciples in Acts, what thought should we give to that flock which is doomed to slaughter in Zechariah?
This is a question of the utmost importance- our answer to it determines whether we think our role as the Church is to sit in self-satisfied assurance of our own promised salvation- inveighing against those whom we hubristically think to have forgone the gifts of grace- or whether we think our role is to preach grace to those who do not know the testimony of God in their hearts. And in order to find our answer, we must look to the Scriptures laid before us today.
We begin with Epistle- 'God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.' It is easy, and it is plausible, to hear these words as an atemporal condemnation of those who do not believe- after all, these unbelievers have managed to make a liar of God. It is easy to hear these words and think 'thank God I have the Son, and what a shame for those who don't'- or perhaps 'do I have the Son? Don't my doubts and sins show that I too have made a liar of God?'
So- we must now ask ourselves, who does have the Son, and how are we to know? And so we turn to the Gospel, which confronts us with this statement- 'I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world.' The disciples gathered with Christ, then, who have kept God's Word- these are ones who have the Son, and so have eternal life.
Now, we could stop here. We could say that this is the only answer we need- that those who have heard, believed, and stayed loyal to the Word of God are those who have the Son, and that it is these alone who are the inheritors of eternal life. Those who have not believed, and especially that worthless shepherd who was paid 30 shekels, are for their part damned to death- they have made a liar of God, and so are doomed to slaughter.
This, however, would be to overlook the most important verses of the Gospel today- 'I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one... As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.' Those who have the Son are not to be taken up in the Ascension- they are to remain in a world which hates them. Not just this- they are not told to remain insular, but are sent into this world, as Peter says, to bear witness to the resurrection. The import of this resurrection, meanwhile, is not that some are saved and some damned- it is that Christ died and rose again, so that all who are otherwise doomed would be saved. The import of the resurrection is that the coin which was lost will be found in the light of the Kingdom of God.
Once we arrive at the fact that the Gospel we are sent to proclaim is one within which what was lost is found, we are brought back again to Judas- the one who was lost. We are brought back to Judas by a Gospel which proclaims that Christ came into the world in order to redeem those who wished to destroy Him.
Judas is indeed the worthless shepherd of a flock doomed to slaughter- he did indeed become a guide for those who arrested Jesus. And yet, precisely as we affirm this truth in the context of this Gospel, we must also say that Christ too is the worthless shepherd of that doomed flock- the sword struck his arm too, his body was indeed beaten and crushed, he was indeed spat upon and disgraced. For he too came for the lost coin, the wandering sheep, the prodigal son. He too came for the sinners- not the easily sanitised sinners doing wrong only out of circumstance, but those who may be evil and unrighteous in their hearts. He came to ease the burden of the oppressed, but he came also to redeem the oppressors, even as he destroys their oppression- he came to save the torturers, the murderers, the racists, the misogynists, the hypocrites, the liars, and the betrayers. He came to give himself as a gift to all of these, in order that they too might have the testimony of God written on their hearts.
Those whom Christ sends, then, those who are called the children of God, are sent to bear witness to all of this- they are sent to bear witness to a world which wants to destroy them. Not the witness of ultimate death and damnation, but witness to the resurrection, to repentance and the forgiveness of sins. They are sent to bear witness to the fact that Christ is had by all- that the risen Christ has been given to all, even and especially those who betrayed and murdered him. For after all, the children of God who have been sent are themselves members of the flock which was doomed to die- the same flock which is saved by the grace of the resurrection.
This, then, is what we must remember on this last Sunday before Pentecost- we must remember that we can only bear witness to the resurrection because one was lost, because one betrayed, because one was paid thirty shekels to be the shepherd of a flock doomed to slaughter. But we must also remember that the resurrection we bear witness to is the resurrection according to which what was lost is found, the prodigal betrayer is reconciled, and the flock doomed to slaughter is redeemed- we must remember that the worthless shepherd is saved by the good shepherd.
Our mission as the Church, then, in the light of all this, is to bear the witness of this love to all, no matter how we are chosen or called, no matter who we might be, no matter how our souls might fear, no matter who we might be bringing this witness to. Our mission is to proclaim in word and deed that the dead have been given life, by manifesting love in the lives of those who hate. Our mission is to proclaim that the worthless shepherd too has the Son, that the worthless shepherd is claimed by grace- and so our mission is to proclaim that this shepherd too is led to lie down in green pastures.