No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
So wrote John Donne in the early years of the 17th century, his message being that human beings do not thrive when isolated from others. That was a theme developed in the film adaptation of the 20th century British author Nick Hornby in his book, made into a film, entitled About a Boy.
The film, opens with the John Donne quotation, and features several ‘lost’ characters. Hugh Grant played the part of Will Freeman, a thirty-six-year-old bachelor living off the royalties of a Christmas one-hit wonder by his father, surrounded by boy’s toys – you know – computer, stereo with surround sound that can insulate you from the world, together with a series of deliberately uncommitted relationships.
The second male character is 12 year old Marcus Brewer, son of a single mother struggling with depression, who hits on the idea that Will is the ideal person to sort his and his mother’s life. Will, who lives a late 20th century island life, rejects the notion, but inevitably, as the story rolls forward, Will discovers that life for him is fuller with those who he first regarded as an inconvenient nuisance.
Who needs a shepherd? Marcus felt he needed one, and though he initially rejected the role, Will found greater fulfilment as one. While Will started the story thinking man was indeed an island, he ended it with an appreciation and experience of the value of shepherd and sheep or, in Donne’s terms, that humans thrive when in good relationships with others.
Who needs a shepherd?
Wind back in time to the very beginnings of the Church, where in the Acts of the Apostles we find the story of a healing of a disciple called Tabitha, a lady devoted to good works and charity, who succumbed to an illness and died. Her body was taken to an Upper Room and ritually cleansed. Peter was sent for, he asked the mourners to leave and, in an echo of the ministry of Jesus, Peter knelt, and prayed, turned to the body and spoke: Tabitha, get up.
She opened her eyes, and seeing Peter sat up. He took her hand and led her out to those who were weeping, and it is reported that subsequently many believed in the Lord.
Who needs a shepherd? Tabitha benefited from one.
Peter, who was had been given the commission to feed and care for sheep, now follows in the footsteps of his master by bringing new life. It’s not a resurrection, for Tabitha will die again; rather life is restored, new life is given, and the one who is praised is the Lord.
Who needs a shepherd?
Theologian Walter Wink wrote: Every human answers two questions, the question for the first half of our lives is: What is the meaning of life?, and the question for the second half of our life is: With the time I have left, how can I make a difference?
Think about Peter. For many years he had lived the life of a fisherman, but something can’t have satisfied him for he responded to the invitation of Jesus and became a disciple – a time of searching, exploring, discovering. This fits well with Walter Wink’s maxim – the first part of our life he explored what is the meaning of life. Peter found meaning in the life of Jesus and was transformed by Jesus such that in the second part of his life, and again according to Walter Wink’s thinking, Peter truly sought to make a difference, and not in his name, but in the name of Jesus. Tabitha and her friends bear witness to that.
But other stories in the Bible indicate that Jesus didn’t transform all hearts. John the Evangelist tells of an encounter between Jesus and some Jews which went far from well. Set at a festival some Jews gathered around Jesus and asked him if he was the Messiah. The question seems to demand a yes or no answer, but the reality is that it wasn’t so simple.
Ultimately asking someone if they are the Messiah, or Saviour, depends on what the questioner means by those words. So rather than reply yes or no, Jesus engages with them, first by pointing to the works that he has done in his Father’s name.
If we look at the works recorded in John’s gospel that preceded this encounter, we find miracles such as changing water into wine at a wedding, healing an official’s son, and feeding a multitude. Works that are less about exercising power as exercising love; works that were in service to people, in service with people, particularly those who suffered, were marginalized or unloved by the rest of society.
Jesus knew that these were not the qualities or characteristics of a Messiah that this group of Jews was looking for.
And he made an analogy between a shepherd and sheep, sheep know a good shepherd and naturally follow, but these Jews didn’t have it in their heart to follow such a Messiah.
It’s the same for us. If, in answer to the question: Who needs a shepherd? we find ourselves saying that deep down, we do, then a logical next question is to ask, Is Jesus a good shepherd for us? And if we find meaning and purpose for our lives in a life given so freely for others, if we find in his life a better way for the world, then the next question we confront is, In the light of Jesus, what difference can I make with what time I have left? To turn the question around – What does God want me to do?
Peter came to know that Jesus valued, loved, and cared for him and, even though Peter let Jesus down big time, Jesus forgave him and then gave him new responsibility. Peter came to know Jesus as a true shepherd who cared deeply and who was present in whatever trials and tribulations he went through. Peter moved from one who was seeking the meaning of life, to one who asked How can I use the remainder of my life to make a real difference? He found the answer was living in the name of Jesus. The one who was cared for as a sheep, became a shepherd for others.
If you need a shepherd, I hope that Jesus might measure up, and if he does, that you too can find true meaning in life through his way of life and a sense of calling to live the remainder of your life to make a real difference in the world, for no man is an island.