JESUS THE CAREGIVER
Acts 2:42-47, Psalm 23, John 10:1-10
April 25, 1999 by Tad Mitsui
I imagine that losing one”s memory with Altzheimer”s disease is like being lost in a strange place and finding yourself among total strangers. Every time I go to see my mother these days, she first looks at me puzzled. But then she extends her hand to take mine as she does to all visitors. I take her hand firmly and say, "Hello, Mama." She breaks into a big smile, "Oh, Tachan! (that”s how she calls me.) Thanks for coming. How is your mother?" Obviously she doesn”t quite know who I am yet, but somehow knows that I am someone very close to her, and she can trust me.
It is amazing what a mere touch of someone”s hand can do. We surround ourselves with all sorts of chemical and technological wonders that are supposed to banish all anxieties and discomforts. But I observe that we are not as happy as we could be. We in fact may have become lonelier and unhappier, because machines keep people away from each other. We still find that a smile, kind words softly spoken, or the touch of a friend works wonders where even pills fail to heal a wounded soul.
According to the church calender, today is designated as "Good Shepherd Sunday." It is the day to highlight Jesus as a kind and caring leader. However, "shepherd" is not a familiar image to us. In our culture, not very many people know what it means to herd the sheep in the badlands. I wondered what would be another image for us today that would fit the character of a shepherd of old. I decided to suggest the image of a caregiver. I am suggesting that Psalm 23 can be paraphrased something like "The Lord is my nurse in the recovery room." Or the words of Jesus in the Gospel of John could be, "I am the wife of a terminally ill person, who always stays with him, feeding him and changing him, holding his hands."
There are many images for God in the Bible. The Creator, the Righteous One, the Holy One, the Merciful One, the Redeemer, the Shepherd, the Spirit, the Lord, to name a few. God can never be known by us totally. So people described their particular relations with God using different images that fit their experiences. The most frequently used image, however, was the "Lord". It was an image of the powerful king. But Psalm 23 qualifies that image by saying that, "Yes, God is the most powerful king, but he is also gentle and kind like a shepherd." Like the hymn says, "Saviour like a shepherd lead us." And this is the image Jesus chose for himself too: "I am a Good Shepherd."
We believe in God who is the king – the powerful leader. But also this leader is like a shepherd who is kind, helps us find security and comfort, and stays with us even in the dark shadow of death. By adopting the image of a shepherd, Jesus clearly described himself as the kind of a leader who would not abuse his power for his own benefit. This leader is not like a despotic king you heard about in history, or a dictator like Hitler or Milosevic, who thinks nothing of sacrificing human lives to stay in power. One hopes that our political leaders are not like those despots and dictators. But watching political scenes around us, I sometimes wonder if even our politician”s top priority is to be re-elected and to stay in power. In a perfect world, you run for an office in order to serve people. But I have not known very many political leaders who have put people”s interests before the prospect of their own re-election. The image of the shepherd as the king makes it absolutely clear the true nature of Jesus” leadership. He leads like a caregiver who puts the wellness of people before all other concerns. We must recover the image of Jesus as the compassionate man who was not afraid to touch lepers, and washed disciples” feet like a slave.
Professor Rodney Stark is a well known specialist in the Sociology of Religion. He has studied the rapid growth of the Christian Church in the first four centuries. The speed with which the number of Christians increased was phenomenal. Beginning as just a handful of followers of Jesus, increased their number so fast that they overtook the Roman Empire within a few centuries. It is even more remarkable when you consider the fact that the Jesus movement grew so fast while banned as an illegal religion and the Christians were persecuted severely. Stark was particularly impressed by the fact that, when two devastating waves of plague (probably small pox) reduced the population of the Roman Empire by a third in the third century, the number of Christians increased even more rapidly in the same period of time. Stark attributes this incredible phenomenon to Christian charity.
During those days, people did not know anything about bacteria or viruses. All diseases were considered to be caused by evil spirits. So sick people, especially those with repulsive skin conditions like leprosy, small pox, and boils were thought to be cursed and were often abandoned and isolated as untouchable. But the Christians followed the example of Jesus, and stayed with the sick and took care of them, while even the doctors did not go near those who contracted plague for fear of the wrath of gods. In fact Stark quotes the diary of a doctor, who went away for holiday because everybody in his care got sick, and there was nobody he could care for. For sure, many Christians contracted the disease and died. But because the sick people were well looked after, a larger number of them survived in the Christian community compared to the population at large. Many outsiders thought that the Christians were practicing powerful magic, and joined the church in droves. But it was not magic nor miracle, not even medical science. It was simply the touch of a friend, kind words softly spoken, and the warm company of concerned people that gave the sick courage to live on. They were following the example of the Christ the caregiver, God the shepherd.
The power of Christ the king is not the force that conquers, it is the courage to love. That”s what the image of God the shepherd means. That”s why I think that the image of Jesus as a caregiver fits very well.