The Good Shepherd in the Desert

goodShepherdIf Jesus is the “living interpretive principle of scriptures, as James Alison says, then the Parable of the Good Shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine to search out the one lost sheep should be a powerful and accurate interpretive lens for other passages in scripture.

In the RoCa lectionary, this Gospel is coupled with a tense episode in Exodus 32. As he comes down the mountain with the tablets of the Ten Commandments, he finds that Aaron has set up a golden calf for the Israelites to worship. God tells Moses to get out of the way so that his wrath can “burn hot against them.” Doesn’t sound like a good shepherd.  Instead, it is Moses who acts out the part of the good shepherd by interceding with God, as Abraham did earlier to avert the divine wrath from the people. At the end of this same chapter, there is another narration of Moses coming down the mountain. This time, he is so furious he breaks the tablets and then rallies the Levites to his side to slay thee thousand people who were worshipping the golden calf. Although Moses claims to be doing God’s work, what we have is a narrative of human rather than divine violence. Moses doesn’t look like a good shepherd this time, but the morning after this monstrous slaughter, Moses intercedes with God to forgive the people although it is a bit late for the three thousand who were slain. This strange doubling of narrations seems to point to a debate in the Jewish tradition moving in the direction of unveiling God’s love for God’s people.

In 1 Corinthians 10, St. Paul refers to this incident by saying “we must not indulge in immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day.” (He ups the death toll.) In isolation, this is about the chilliest verse in the Pauline epistles but in its sacramental context, it is much more in keeping with Jesus the Good Shepherd. Leading into this verse, Paul says that “we were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same supernatural food and all drank the same supernatural drink.” This, in turn, recalls the reinterpretation of the Flood in 1 Peter where the water corresponds to the baptism that delivered Noah and his family and delivers us now. The Genesis story clearly indicates a social meltdown with a few, probably the intended victims, escaping. The Exodus story refers to the social meltdown in Egypt that lead to the expulsion of the Israelites. In the desert, the Israelites had their own social meltdown centered around rivalry between Moses and Aaron. (Arnold Schönberg’s opera Moses and Aron portrays this rivalry with great insight.) For both Peter and Paul, baptism is the deliverance from the surrounding sacrificial society into the Kingdom centered on the Eucharist, the new way of gathering without need of victims and certainly not needed the slaughter of three thousand. Paul is not, then, warning his readers against a wrathful deity but against a wrathful society that will engulf them if they return to its sacrificial ways, just as a relapse into the wrathful society of Egypt lead to a meltdown in the camp and the deaths of thousands.

Jesus the Good Shepherd does not strike dead those who re-enter a sacrificial society that today manifests hardness of heart to the extent of trying to prevent fundamental ministries such as feeding the hungry. Instead, Jesus enters into the heart of the society to bring back all who are lost. Rather than starting a bloodbath, we should intercede for all such people as Moses did and follow Jesus in searching for the lost.

See also: The Communal Good Shepherd

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