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Politics of Scripture

Discerning Hired Hands from Good Shepherds

Mutual knowing is not a given in relationships…

11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own, and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me, and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep 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. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 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.”

John 10:11-18 (NRSVue)

Metaphors help us explain things by comparing something new to something familiar. In both Jesus’ context and that of the author of the Gospel of John, people were familiar with sheep and shepherds. In this passage, Jesus casts himself as the good shepherd to explain his relationship with his followers.

He begins with a contrast between the good shepherd and the hired hand. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away, and the wolf snatches the sheep and scatters them.” In the face of danger, the hired hand will save his own skin rather than protect the sheep. The fact that he is paid to tend the sheep is the only thing we know about him, which emphasizes that his relationship with the sheep is part of a transactional relationship he has with the shepherd. By contrasting himself as the good shepherd with the hired hand, Jesus emphasizes that his relationship with his followers is not transactional.

In 21st century U.S. culture, capitalism is far more familiar than sheep and shepherds. It is tempting to interpret the contrast between the hired hand and Jesus along these lines. The sheep are owned by the shepherd. The hired hand will run away if a wolf comes near, but the shepherd will want to protect his investment! The language of ownership in the translation makes such a reading even more tempting. However, in English it can mean many different things to say something or someone is “my own.” Naming something as “my own” is a form of identification. My shoes, my friends, and my dreams are all my own, although my relationship to each is very different and in only one case (my shoes) does ownership imply possession. 

That Jesus is pointing to something different than protecting one’s investment is made clear in the following line, when he says, “The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.” One could argue that the job of a hired hand is precisely to care for the sheep, as in to tend them, make sure they have pasture to graze and water to drink. Yet Jesus is talking about care, not as caretaking, but as love. 

The loving relationship between Jesus and his followers is clarified further in the next lines: “I am the good shepherd. I know my own, and my own know me,” There is mutuality between Jesus and his followers: Jesus knows them and they know Jesus. 

Mutual knowing is not a given in relationships, especially in our media-saturated world. Many of us have “parasocial” relationships with people we feel we know, who do not know us. Parasocial relationships often involve public figures or celebrities. For example, I have a parasocial relationship with Stephen Colbert. I know a lot about him: his political views, his Catholic faith, his relationships with his mother and with his wife. I think we would be great friends, if it weren’t for the minor inconvenience that Stephen Colbert does not know I exist. 

In stark contrast, Jesus and his followers know each other. There is a mutual intimacy of great care. Then Jesus takes it up a notch: “I know my own, and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me, and I know the Father.” The Gospel of John emphasizes, from beginning to end, that Jesus is one with the Father. The first verse of the Gospel says: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” This Word becomes flesh in Jesus (John 1:14). Jesus says that he and his followers know each other “just as” Jesus and the Father know one another. This is a radical level of intimacy and mutuality. The followers of Jesus are brought into the loving relationship between the Father and the Son.

It is important to note that a relationship can be mutual without being symmetrical. For example, a parent and a newborn have an asymmetrical relationship, as the baby depends on the adult, who has far more power, knowledge, and capacity. The power, knowledge, and capacity disparity between a God and a human person is infinitely larger than between a parent and child. As theologian and philosopher Marilyn McCord Adams used to say, “God is very big and we are very small.” And yet, Christians believe that God chooses to be in an intimate, caring, mutual relationship with humans, both individually and collectively. 

Throughout the history of the U.S., politicians of all stripes have used Christian imagery to draw out both emotions and actions from voters, even as the U.S. has maintained a fragile, porous, and crucial distinction between church and state. When the fledgling country inaugurated its first president, the procedure was a matter of debate and confusion. It could not be like the coronation of an English monarch, a ceremony in a church during which an archbishop crowns the new king or queen. Instead, George Washington was inaugurated in Federal Hall, a decidedly governmental building where Congress met. Yet immediately after taking the oath of office, President Washington went to St. Paul’s Church for a worship service.

Politicians of every party have also used parasocial relationships to their advantage. FDR’s “fireside chats” helped the nation survive the Great Depression and the Second World War, as well as helping him remain in office for four terms. These relationships have been used for identification for generations. Long before bumper-stickers or yard signs, prospective voters wore “I Like Ike” buttons on their lapels. By 2008, technology enabled the parasocial and the transactional to merge in new ways, including the relentless e-mail fundraising of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. 

In the lead-up to the 2024 Presidential election, both Joe Biden and Donald Trump offer their supporters parasocial, transactional relationships as they ask voters to donate money and identify themselves as blue or red. Both men will appear in churches and present themselves as Christians. However, Trump is bringing these elements together in a distinctive way. 

Michael C. Bender, writing in the New York Times, states that Trump is attempting “to transform the Republican Party into a kind of Church of Trump,” a process that includes Trump’s “insistence on absolute devotion and fealty.” Bender observes that Trump now ends his rallies on a meditative note. “In this moment, Mr. Trump’s audience is his congregation, and the former president their pastor as he delivers a roughly 15-minute finale that evokes an evangelical altar call.” 

Trump is careful, in such rallies, not to portray himself as a savior, although he approvingly recycles words and images from his supporters that cast him as chosen by God and crucified by the justice system. This is an interesting contrast to Trump’s message at the 2016 Republican National Convention, during which he painted a near-apocalyptic picture of the U.S. and declared, “I alone can fix it.” Having anointed himself the savior of the nation in 2016, Trump does not need to repeat that message now, as he brings a particular version of Christianity into his self-presentation.

Last month, during Holy Week, Trump advertised a “God Bless the USA Bible,” which includes a King James translation of the Bible, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, the Pledge of Allegiance, and a handwritten copy of Lee Greenwood’s song, “God Bless the USA.” Trump receives royalties from each $59.99 sale. This amalgamation of texts is a clear endorsement of Christian nationalism, which is antithetical both to the founding values of the U.S. (separation of church and state, freedom of religion, and so forth) and Christian theology, which affirms Jesus Christ as savior of all who follow him, regardless of nationality. The particular holidays of Holy Week—Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter—remember that Jesus was crucified by the empire he threatened with his message of God’s unbounded love, and that the empire did not have the final word. 

In truth, all politicians on the national scale are hired hands. Some are better and some are worse, but they do not–they cannot–have mutual relationships of care with the people they represent. That’s okay. What is truly dangerous is to imagine that any one of them is a shepherd.

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