Today is Good Shepherd Sunday. The image of the Good Shepherd is often depicted in stained-glass windows and on holy cards, showing Jesus in spotless white robes holding a lamb. Nice image but not at all realistic. Shepherds are the equivalent of cowboys in the Old West. They are rough and gritty, working under often difficult conditions to tend to cattle. I offer this image, not to dismiss the Good Shepherd image, but to re-visit it. We too often sentimentalize images of Jesus. To think of Jesus as the Good Cowboy is to return to an image that is not removed from reality.
Cowboys risk great danger to tend to their cattle. In the Old West, they would fight off bandits, engaging in gunfire and risking death. Jesus engaged the forces of evil to protect us. He “took a bullet” meant for us. Imagine how we would feel about someone who jumped in front of a bullet meant for us. We would be eternally grateful. In the same way, we are eternally grateful for Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who laid down his life to protect us.
Shepherds most often cared for their sheep (their cattle), not to lead them to slaughter to make food, but to provide wool. Because of this, they genuinely cared for their sheep, protected them, spent a lifetime with them. In turn, the sheep came to know the sound of the shepherd’s voice. We call Jesus Good because we know that his care for us is genuine.
To think of Jesus as the Good Cowboy is to avoid sterilizing or romanticizing a concept (the Good Shepherd) that is intended to have some connection to our daily lives. Jesus is with us when life is most gritty, fighting off that which endangers us (with his rod) and yanking us back into the fold (with his staff). All because he genuinely cares for us and knows that we have great value.