On the hills today in Morocco, Israel and throughout the region, you can see goats and sheep running about in combined flocks, looking for grasses to eat. They are not quite as abundant as they were in Biblical times, but they remind us of why the shepherd/flocks/sheep metaphors are so prevalent, especially in this week’s Bible Lesson titled “Everlasting Punishment.” Goats know where they are going and sheep are happy to follow them, but the shepherd is needed to protect them when animal predators approach. Biblical ‘flocks’ are often combined flocks of goats and sheep.
As humans, we get ourselves into trouble when we think of ourselves more highly than sheep. The sheep are better off for trusting unquestioningly that their shepherd knows what’s best for them. He will always be there for them, guiding them gently or firmly in the right direction. When David was a shepherd, he fought bears and lions (Ezek 34:23-24 in the Responsive Reading and citation 19; see also I Sam 17:34-37). The job wouldn’t be easy for humans working alone, but it’s God’s responsibility to protect the sheep and us. In this week’s lesson, we have examples of God’s servants shepherding the people and of God shepherding all of us (Luke 12:32, Golden Text; Ps 23, cit. 1; S&H 578, cit. 1; Ps 95, cit. 6; etc). God is not just protecting us with a sling and a staff, but with immortal Mind, ever-present Love, omnipotent Principle and Soul-filled Spirit.
When we follow God’s leadings, we will be taken care of, during times of both peace and punishment. Joseph was maligned by Potiphar’s wife after he refused to be seduced by her (Gen 39, cit. 8). Potiphar was the head of Pharaoh’s private guard, like the chief in charge of Secret Service. The word for officer is ‘saris,’ which can also be translated ‘eunuch.’ Because some men close to pharaohs and kings were castrated (so that they would wholly serve their leader), all officials were called by the same word, but not all of them had been castrated. Potiphar had a human position of power and authority, but God’s authority was much greater and God protected Joseph. When Joseph was in prison, he was well-treated, quickly rose in position and was eventually freed after correctly interpreting some prisoners’ dreams. He had not sinned, so there was no need for punishment. Later, when Joseph was reunited with his brothers, who had sold him into slavery, he forgave them, acknowledging that he had been able to do God’s work in Potiphar’s house, in prison, and later while helping to feed people from throughout the entire region, acting as a shepherd to them.
In the parable of the Prodigal Son, he tries to run away from his father (Luke 14, cit. 14 and 15). He gives his father the most egregious insult possible in Biblical times, basically saying, ‘You are dead to me,’ as he insists on taking his inheritance. His father’s love is unwavering, though. When the Prodigal realizes his mistakes, repents of his sins and returns, his father runs to him and gives him the symbols of belonging to his family: his signet ring, a robe and sandals. The older son also has learning and growing to do. He becomes jealous of his brother’s treatment, wanting the Prodigal to be punished. His father has forgiven him, but he hasn’t. We never hear if he eventually comes in to enjoy the party and partake of the feast. “Self-love is more opaque than a solid body. In patient obedience to a patient God, let us labor to dissolve with the universal solvent of Love the adamant of error, — self-will, self-justification, and self-love, — which wars against spirituality and is the law of sin and death” (S&H 242, cit. 13).
God the father protects us all, forgiving us even when we act maliciously or turn away in a jealous rage. In this story, the father is shepherding both sons, showing them equal love and understanding. This week, we can look for ways that God is shepherding us, keeping us from harm and undue punishment.
(This was published in the Christian Science Sentinel of April 23, 2012. It is related to the CS BibleLesson (lectionary) "Everlasting Punishment" for the week from Apr 23-29, 2012. These all used to be published online and freely accessible. Since you now need a paid subscription, I'll publish all of them here.)