Sunday, May 03, 2009
The Lord is My Cowboy, I Shall Not Want
I am not very familiar with shepherds. The image of a shepherd doesn’t work for me. Born where I was born (Napa, CA), to parents who were where they were from (New Mexico), living where I have lived (Texas), reading the books that I have read, and living in a country that has idealized the cowboy, the image of livestock that primarily pop into my head are pictures of cattle. I’ve read my share of Louis L’Amour, and one of my favorite books of all time is Lonesome Dove. I think it’s probably the same for many of you. Sheep don’t enter into the picture much. I have only eaten Lamb a couple of times, and half of them I didn’t like. I don’t even wear much wool.
Cowboys got their image, the undying American icon, during a 30 year stretch in the late 1800’s when the railroads were growing, but had not yet spread into every nook and cranny of America. Cattle had to be sent to market, usually in Chicago, and driving the cows to Chicago seemed a little excessive. But you could drive them to Wichita, or to Topeka, and they could be loaded onto railcars and sent to Chicago. So the cattle drive was born. And the guys who were hired to help with the cattle became known as cowboys. You needed quite a few people to run cows, because you needed to surround the herd. Cows are an independent proposition—you needed a guy to lead, and set the path, guys who would line down the sides of the herd, and one poor guy to ride in the back, called riding “drag”, the dustiest and messiest place to ride in the whole drive. The guy back there may have been the youngest, or the one who was in trouble, or sometimes they rotated the position.
What seems to be the same between cowboys on cattle drives and shepherds is that the people who did the job were not seen as moral upstanding characters. In movies and books, cowboys would come to a town and shoot up the place, go into saloons and conduct business in them, and then move on to the next town. Shepherds spent most of their time away from towns, too, but not in the same way. They didn’t move around as wide a space as cowboys. It’s true that, as one commentator writes about this passage, “shepherds were rough around the edges, spending time in the fields rather than in polite society.” The same is true of cowboys.
Cowboys were generally not guys who had an education, or if they did, they hid it. The American West was not yet populated, and that meant it also had very few laws, very few people to enforce the laws, very few schools, very few churches, very few women, frankly. It was a perfect situation for a guy to disappear into. They then became cowboys because that was the job that was at hand.
Cowboys were among the first migrant workers, and just as we have societal issues and prejudices about migrant workers now, so did they then.
For Jesus to say “I am the Good Shepherd” doesn’t mean much to me. Oh, I know from reading that shepherds are in every bit the same amount of danger as cowboys, they have the same social status, and the good ones take care of their livestock the same way as good cowboys. It’s just that my culture doesn’t do shepherds. Here it is, the 21st century, and for most of us, the image shepherd still conjures up some guy with a cloth on his head, a robe and a stick, sitting on the hillside as sheep graze around him. An image that’s probably 2000 years old or older. It’s old, and it’s foreign to our experience. They still have shepherds in Europe, they even have a few in the US, but there is not a lot we know about modern American shepherding.
When Jesus talks about being the good shepherd, it’s pretty clear that we are the sheep. Even me. But for me, it works just as well to say that we are the cattle.
If Jesus were to have said “I am the good cowboy”, OK, now I can hear that in my own language. That means he won’t bail when the weather gets too hot, or too cold, or rainy, or snowy. He does what the trail boss says, even rides drag. He goes looking for the cattle that get sidetracked down gullies and ravines, and brings them back to the herd. He finds the best ford to cross the river, and when it’s flooded, he waits until it’s reasonably safe. He protects the cattle against coyotes and other critters. When it’s time to go into town, he’s the guy who brings all the other cowboys home to sleep it off. He knows more than he lets on. In a crowd of knuckleheads, he’s the competent one.
So lets read through John’s passage again, substituting as we need to:
‘I am the good cowboy. The good cowboy lays down his life for the cattle. The hired hand, who is not the cowboy and does not own the cattle, sees the coyote coming and leaves the cattle and runs away—and the coyote snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the cattle. I am the good cowboy. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the cattle. I have other cattle that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.’
The livestock changes, but the message is the same. We are being taken care of, and our safety is assured by a protector, a capable, knowledgeable, and trustworthy protector. Jesus is with us in all of our travels, and we cannot go wrong when we follow him.