Alison on “The Good Shepherd”

The Good Shepherd

by James Alison

This is going to be an attempt at a more didactic approach to what I was talking about in this morning’s session. I am going to take the readings which are usual for Good Shepherd Sunday, that is to say Ezekiel 34 and John 10:1-18, and see how we can allow ourselves to enter into what I have tried to outline as the eucharistic dynamic of our faith.

First of all I would like to set out what I take to be the structure of Eucharist, and then see how we can allow these readings to come alive for us.

1) The structure of Eucharist

The structure of Eucharist is set out in Luke 24:13-35, the narrative of the appearance of the risen Jesus to two disappointed disciples on the road to Emmaus. This is one of the most important passages of the New Testament, since it sets out quite clearly the pattern of interpretation of scripture — how to read scripture, and where this will lead.

The elements are these: a mysterious stranger accompanying disillusioned people. It is not easy to recognize this stranger, and that is important. In the Eucharistic dynamic the one who interprets will always seem strange to those listening, and the interpretation will always seem off-beam, surprising, weird.

Furthermore, it turns out that part of the strangeness of the stranger is that he is a living dead man. That is to say, someone who was dead and is now alive. I would like to emphasize one of the key things about this. This doesn’t mean someone who once was dead and is now alive. This means someone whose whole life, including his death, is made living and kept alive by a power which does not know death. It is as dead-and-living man that the stranger speaks, and the words he speaks and his power to interpret come strictly and absolutely from the fact that he is alive as a dead man, and his whole life up to and including his death is made alive to us as a word of interpretation by which we might live.

Now we know something of how he came to be killed — we have the whole story leading up to his passion. And we know something weird about this story. That there was no resentment in it. Normally, our own stories about how we are victimised are resentful stories, stories in which there is a certain glee in finding ourselves victims — that is, after all, a way of being important — and a certain pain and self-justification in telling of how badly treated we were. We can easily imagine that after a particularly bad example of victimisation and mistreatment, any comeback we may make will have something of vengeance about it. It will be a triumphal “I was right all along” — “look you awful people who mistreated me, look who’s laughing now.”

This is an interpretation of victimisation that is stuck within the mentality imposed upon the victim by the victimisers, and shared by both.

But our resentment does not survive death. A dead person cannot take vengeance, cannot tell the story of how mistreated they were, cannot be sorry for themselves, cannot justify themselves. They are dead. I think that this is part of the difficulty for us in understanding and reading the weirdness of this passage, and indeed of living the Catholic faith. It is near impossible for us to imagine a non-resentful telling of a lifestory leading to victimisation. Our antennae simply do not pick up the radio waves which emerge from the broadcasting of a non-resentful life. And yet it is these waves from beyond our antennae which offer us the broadcast which we are learning to receive.

The dead and living stranger is both dead, and entirely without resentment. And this is not because he is a particularly good person. We can imagine particularly good people who, faced with situations of great violence and victimisation are able to forgive their persecutors and, in some remarkable cases, live as though they had never been persecuted at all. This is real grace, and we recognise real saintliness in such people. Nevertheless, part of the drama of their excellence is that there is always an element of being transformed from being a resentful person in these cases. We are talking about stories of how such and such a person came to be holy, and in all these cases we are talking about someone who imitated, who learned by imitation how to be killed and not to mind.

However, our dead and living stranger was not only a particularly good person. When we talk of the Father sending the Son, or of Jesus being God, we are affirming something more. We are affirming that our dead and living stranger is alive as something more than a non-resentful interpretative presence. We are affirming that someone who was incapable of resentment is making himself present as part of a creative project which is so much prior to and outside our resentment that it is able to imagine a way of calling us out of our resentment by freely becoming its victim and teaching us how to move beyond it.

This is the yahwistic root of our eucharistic dynamic. The still small voice which dethrones the gods and reveals the truth about creation breaks into our world as a self-giving and forgiving human victim who continually gives us the living story of his life and death to empower us to recover the creation which was meant for us to enjoy.

If Jesus were just a non-resentful victim, then he would be a good person. But we affirm more. We claim that he was the making humanly present and possible of the purpose of creation, a project which simply doesn’t know resentment, and is before it. This is to say that Jesus is God and that in the Eucharist we have in our midst the real presence of God made human.

To resume the first part of the eucharistic structure: we have the strangeness of the stranger; we have the discovery that this is to do with his being a living dead man; we have the discovery that this is a presence beyond resentment; and we have the discovery that this presence beyond resentment is the human face of the creative project of Yahweh from the beginning. This is to begin to try and describe the dynamism of presence which is available in the Lucan text.

The second part (which is first in order of our perception) is the interpretation of texts. The mysterious stranger proceeds to open up to the two disciples the scriptures (Luke 24: 25-27):

And he said to them, “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.

Here the structure becomes simpler: familiarity makes the hearers foolish; weirdness begins to open up the texts of the prophets. The interpretative principle is the dead and living human word of Yahweh insisting on the necessity of the project which included, but was by no means exhausted by, his own victimisation. The route then taken is the beginning of the living interpretative principle accompanying the disciples and making the texts alive exactly in the midst of their disappointment and disillusionment, and thus beginning to enflame their hearts so that they can acquire courage and bear witness to the living God themselves, going back to Jerusalem which they had abandoned in despair.

This is the structure of Eucharist. We celebrate it where we are, and it takes the form of texts jostling each other, and in the midst of that, our recognition of the crucified and living one who enables those texts to bear life and meaning so that, knowing ourselves accompanied we can be made brave and bear witness to the living God wherever we find ourselves, and thus come to share in the bringing into being of the New Creation.

Having dashed with unseemly haste through this quite extraordinary text, now let us turn to the Good Shepherd texts and see if we can allow ourselves to be enflamed into life through them.

2) Innocent idolatry

Let’s start with the phase of innocent idolatry which I described to you before. We have no dead and living interpretative principle in our midst, merely a doctrine of sacrifice or some such cultic structure which binds us together. The text of Ezekiel and the text of John sit side by side in a rather obvious way. We interpret them in our innocent idolatry. They are quite clear: God was preparing all along for our group. There was a wicked bunch of people, called the Jews, whom God was forever berating. Since they were wicked people, they always had bad shepherds, who didn’t look after the weak and sinful sheep, but fed themselves instead. God got so fed up with these shepherds that he told his prophet Ezekiel that he was going to dispense with them, and come and shepherd his sheep himself. So, in the fulness of time, he sent Jesus who, naturally enough, found himself in the presence of a whole lot of bad shepherds — high priests, scribes and pharisees. In the midst of all these bad shepherds, Jesus revealed that he was the fulfilment of the promise made through the mouth of Ezekiel — it was he whom Ezekiel had been referring to all along. He revealed that he was the Good Shepherd.

Very conveniently he got himself killed, thus becoming the foundational sacrifice of a new religion, and those who follow him are the sheep of the Good Shepherd. They know they are his sheep and hear his voice because they do not allow themselves to be led astray by wicked shepherds like those Jewish ones. The text about those wicked Jewish shepherds serves as a perpetual reminder of how lucky we are to belong to the real good shepherd, the definitive shepherd, God himself, who in choosing us, abandoned those useless Jews, who were so foolish and slow of heart that they did not understand the fulfilment of their own scriptures.

Well, I’ve used the term innocent idolatry to refer to this reading. Of course there is no such thing as innocent idolatry. All idolatry is, by definition, violent: idols demand sacrifices, that is what makes them idols. We all know something of the idolatrous violence hidden behind a reading such as the one I’ve offered you. It depends on an expendable victim people whom we can despise so as to consider ourselves good. However, I don’t want to leave behind the word “innocent” so easily. The idolatry is innocent in that there is no self-critical element present in it. It genuinely doesn’t know what it is doing. There is no inwards glance. The interpretative principle is not a dead and living word. It is a foundational, once-and-for-all sacrifice — however the fruits of that be made contemporary — and a new group of the righteous has been founded. Part of what it takes for that group to be good is a quite unexamined, and almost unconscious sense of superiority over the Jews, who are reduced to stage idiots.

Part of the irony, completely lost on those who participate in this innocent idolatry, is the belief that we are somehow superior to the Jews. In fact, this religious form is a huge step back into gentile paganism of the sort which would make any moderately educated Jew tear his hair not with anger but with sorrow. It makes of Jesus not God, but a god, a sort of tribal totem or fetish. There is no eucharistic dynamic, no Yahwistic interpretative presence, no movement on our part out of idolatry into life.

3) The protestant moment

The next stage, if you remember, is what I have called the protestant moment, the moment of the self-righteous confrontational word. Often we accede to this only when we find ourselves, for whatever reason, unable to inhabit the comfort of innocent idolatry. This is the beginning of a wrestling for space within what seemed, but no longer seems, like our house, our peaceful dwelling place. If we don’t get thrown out so violently that we simply lose hold of the ability to tell a story at all, then we may find ourselves beginning to make an interpretation which goes something like this:

The Good Shepherd is our Shepherd, on the side of the poor outcasts who are being so badly treated within our own group by a group of people who are behaving just like the bad shepherds whom Ezekiel was criticizing. We suddenly see that the whole point of Ezekiel’s text was that it was itself a breakthrough, the prophetic genius seeing through the structures of his own group and beginning to imagine how God himself might come to be a critique of the status quo. So we see Jesus, the good shepherd in John’s Gospel as the prophetic critique of the status quo, and suddenly there is illuminated in our midst the awfulness of our shepherds. They have abandoned their sheep (that is to say, us), they have scattered their sheep (that is to say, us) by their harsh doctrines, making it impossible for us to gather together in a safe space. They have thus left us at the mercy of all the wild beasts which can take advantage of our precariousness and our defencelessness. They have paid no attention at all to our needs, so obsessed are they by their rules and their reputations. They have fed themselves, making religion into something of good reputation which encourages high-society people to give money to it because it helps cover up their own sense of guilt at being lousy employers and people dependent on injustice.

Instead of this, we have Jesus the Good Shepherd, clearly on our side, the friend of sinners, dining with tax-collectors and prostitutes, who reserved his harshest words for people just like our Bishops, Cardinals and canon lawyers, people who know only about binding and not about loosing. People like our televangelists who depend on badmouthing people like us in order to make money. These people are just like the hirelings who care only for the institution which sustains them and not for the sheep which are the only purpose of the institution. Faced with any threat they’ll always kick into institutional mode, and leave the sheep, alleging that they’ve got to present the church to God in its purity or some such sententious nonsense.

Well, as I suggested before, this does mark a real movement beyond our first moment. We’ve lost our group innocence, and we’ve given up depending on bad guy Jews — in fact we’ve lost all interest in the Jews as such. For we have found new Jews, our very own Pharisees and Scribes and High Priests, people whose awfulness makes us good. The word has actually become a critical word, and almost, but not quite, a self-critical word. Remember David who had Uriah the Hittite killed so that he could sleep with Bathsheba. When Nathan the prophet came to reprimand him, he told David a story about a man who had many sheep, but who stole his neighbour’s only lamb to prepare a meal for a guest. David immediately flew into a rage and wanted to do something about that terrible man, and demanded to know who he was. Nathan replied to him: Thou art the man! In the protestant moment we are something like David as he hears the terrible tale, but before he hears that ultimate biblical punch line.

The key thing about any protest is that it is utterly dependent on there being another over against whom my protest has its validity and its dignity. It is just as dependent on a structure of “we” and “they” as the first, innocently idolatrous model, but it is, if anything, even more sure, and fired up, about the rightness of “we” and the evil of “they” than the earlier moment.

The picture of the Risen Lord here is a very judgmental one, himself a brandisher of vengeance, risen from beyond the grave to vindicate victims like ourselves, and shaking the mighty power of his awe-ful word at the powers that be. Here we are not a million miles away from some elements of the Jewish faith, particularly the more strident prophetic voices, but we are not yet close to imagining those magic words of the Yahwist revolution “but the Lord was not in the earthquake.” The sort of religion we have here does not need Eucharist, it does not need a sacred centre. Instead, just words, confrontational words, replace worship and empty out its center.

4) Access to Eucharist

The next moment is the subversion by grace of all that went before. In the first stage we were peaceful possessors of an unwittingly violent identity. In the second moment we had to hold onto an identity violently over against the collapse of our belonging and our house. Now in the third moment we begin to find that it is our identity that collapses. We no longer have a confrontational Jesus we can wave against others, no sort of “Gott mit uns.” The living, Eucharistic Jesus comes at us by surprise and holds us in being at the same time as he allows our masks to melt away. Our violently held identities die, which means that we undergo a certain sort of death, and are no longer over against anything at all.

This means that we begin to see Jesus not as “for us” over against others, but as in our midst as one who catches us off guard. The comfortable world of “we”s and “they”s begins to collapse. The people who before we had been able to identify as lousy shepherds are now just other potential sheep like us. They are in need of someone who will shepherd them. We are approached by someone who does not affirm us in our identity, but by someone who allows our identity to collapse so that a new “we” may be born, a “we” not over against any one at all, but a we that is being called into being.

The texts about the evil shepherds no longer cause us to fixate on any real people, for we no longer need to fixate. On the contrary, the texts have become part of our education in how to become “we” so that we can learn to avoid our own temptations to divide a world between us and them — for that is, after all, what bad, sacrificial shepherds do.

There are several rather extraordinary features of John’s Good Shepherd text, which I suspect can only be brought to life by the eucharistic Christ. Jesus says that he is the door — and of course it is the purpose of the door that it defines what is in and what is out. But he is a very special sort of door, because it is by entering through him, which means following him through a certain sort of death, that the sheep will be able to go in and out and find pasture. Now what is extraordinary about this is the freedom involved. The Good Shepherd enables people to go in and out and find pasture — it is a strange sort of door which does not seek to define people, but gives access to a temporary shelter which exists for the benefit of the sheep without wishing to confine the sheep therein.

There is no definitive inside and outside for the Good Shepherd, there are places of shelter and of feeding, different places to which the door gives access, and which presuppose movement, non-fixity, and confidence in being neither in nor out. It is assumed that the best feeding place might not be one that seems to be “in,” yet the good shepherd is able to make that place available to his sheep.

There is a further display of the sort of comfort with diversity and plurality which characterizes John, despite efforts by some exegetes to read him as an anti-semitic sectarian writer. The Good Shepherd says he has other sheep, not of this flock, and he must bring them also, and they will heed his voice. This is the eucharistic Christ preparing us for what neither of the first two moments in our religion could imagine: our new “we” that we are being given passes through our learning to welcome as part of “us” people who seemed utterly foreign to us, completely unrecognisable to us. And that of course can only happen as we lose our ability to recognise ourselves, for in receiving them, we too are changed.

The sheep hear the voice of the good shepherd, and he calls them by name and leads them out. The sheep are ones who have entered by the door. That is, they have learned that it is only by undergoing a certain sort of death, which we celebrate in baptism, that they are able to become part of the fold. Once the sheep have undergone that sort of death, then they are able to hear the voice of the shepherd, which is the very still, small voice of Yahweh, who is fulfilling his promise to Ezekiel. Those who have died can hear the voice of the one who died, because they are able to recognise the true voice of God, who knows not death, and who calls into being, and loves. Other voices are not to be followed, because they show themselves not to be of God since they are scandalised by death.

The Good Shepherd is not scandalised by death, but is able to give his life for his sheep, and he puts down his life and takes it up again. This is the talk of someone who is not scandalised by death, and the new “we” that is being called into being is held in being by the same power that does not know death, but which enables us to follow and imitate the non-scandalised one. This means that we can dare to be weak amongst the weak without fear. Only the indestructible dare to be weak. We dare to be outcast among the outcast, since only those who are so utterly held in being that they don’t need to hold on to being at all are able to dwell peacefully among those who apparently are not. Only those who are utterly held in life can dare to be dead, since death is for them as it is for God, something which is not.

What the eucharistic dynamic is doing, the presence of the crucified and risen Lord making sense out of texts jostled together, far from demonstrating some simple fulfilment of old texts by newer ones, or a use of certain texts to point fingers with sudden understanding, is plunging us into a recreation of meaning which passes through a loss of meaning. The recreation collapses all the idols which seemed to give structure to our reading, and leaves us with something rather remarkable. A lack both of bad shepherds, and of wolves — these cannot be identified in any way at all.

The sheep who have learned not to be scandalised by death can go in and out, and in their very doing so, have become themselves shepherds, leaders in tranquil imitation of other sheep, co-creators of a great rejoicing. We can hear the voice of such shepherds if we are on our way to becoming such shepherds ourselves. For the one who went before us did so not so as to be superior to and apart from us, but so as to be himself in each of us, each one called by name.

We are left with the Yahwistic project of the creation of a “we” not over against anything at all, but full of an unimagined and a peaceful diversity. Each of us is able to “go before” the others — which means happily face up to death, as Jesus went before us, or as Joseph went before his brothers to Egypt, since that is how we create the abundance with which we are invited to live.

And this is the regular centre of our worship. It is by becoming regular participants within this eucharistic dynamic that little by little our hearts and minds become inflamed to imagine a kingdom, and imagining it, to bring it about on earth.

James Alison
Santiago de Chile, October 1999

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