This is the one day of the year I wish I was a vegetarian. It’s a problem for me sitting at Sunday lunch eating my roast meat because it puts me in mind of just what it is to be a sheep. Being a sheep is all about the slaughter. I don’t like to think of Jesus as the Good Shepherd because, of course, then I’m a sheep and however well shepherded I might be I know it’s all to keep me fit and fat for the table. In the paintings the Good Shepherd is always carrying the lamb tenderly close to his heart but Sunday lunch reminds me that all the same it is a lamb led to the slaughter.
The symbol of the Passover lamb only makes it worse. The slaughter becomes sacrifice. Give the sheep a brain for a moment and wonder whether it would come quietly, whether it would be a willing sacrifice, and what it would think of the butcher who cuts its throat in worship.
There’s something deeply disturbing about Jesus the Good Shepherd. I can only hear him speak of himself that way with a deep irony. But Jesus claims the title of Good Shepherd because he lays down his life for his sheep. It is by putting himself in the sheep’s stead that he shepherds them. The only Good Shepherd is the one who becomes a sheep, the lamb of God.
Which gives the Passover lamb a strange new sense. Instead of a sheep going unknowingly to its sacrificial death we have the shepherd laying down his life freely. No one takes it from him!
And instead of the cruel allegation that killing sheep keeps God happy – we have God, in person, dismantling the sacrificial system from inside by entering it, not as one who demands sacrifice, but as one who would rather be sacrificed than collude with it. If there is going to be sacrifice – even religious sacrifice – Jesus shows us God has no taste for it and in the Resurrection God rejects it.
Whenever we do violence in God’s name, however well-intentioned, however hidden or holy, we give God a voice Jesus would never recognise. No wonder the world complains God is silent or violent or bad.
Jesus goes to his death so we might recognise God, know God’s true voice, and in the process find our own.