A few weeks ago, I read about a fascinating unpublished experiment in The Atlantic Monthlymagazine. An American researcher brought in undergraduate students to play monopoly. But he rigged the game. The “rich” player was given double the money compared to the “poor” player, and got to roll two dice instead of one, which means his pile of cash also grew faster since he passed ‘Go’ more often. The rich player even got to play with the car piece; his poor opponent had to make do with the boot.
As the game went on, the researcher noted that the behavior of the rich player changed. The rich player spoke louder, ate more pretzels from the common bowl and even took up more space around the game boards. It was as if the rich player, the researcher told The Atlantic, just got bigger, while the poor player grew smaller. According to the article, the research was never published, but it has been replicated in other ways. There is lots of research showing that the wealthier we are, the more entitled and self-interested we feel, the less we need others, the less generosity we show for those with less than ourselves.
Indeed, as other stories in the Bible have pointed out, having money often leads to a lack of other-centeredness that can be hard to overcome.
And so the question the gospel poses to us today is directly related to these times: are we Shepherds, or are we hired hands? The Shepherd cares for the sheep, sacrifices for the sheep, even lays down their life for the sheep. The hired hand, as Jesus tells us, runs away when the wolf shows up, pretending to care until the going gets tough. The hired hand pretends to be the Shepherd until the payoff is no longer worth it.
The parable of the Good Shepherd is both a metaphor for our relationship to God and a lesson in leadership for us. Jesus leads by example: he welcomes everyone into his flock; he values the tax collector, the widow who throws in two coins, the woman at the well, the fisherman, the leper, the rich landowner, and he is willing to sacrifice for each one of them. Jesus demonstrates how to use power benevolently, generously, and to make a difference.
Now money, in our capitalist society, is really a proxy for power. The wealthier we are the healthier we are, the more stable our lives, the more secure we feel. This is true within communities, and between countries. It is certainly an unfair and terrible truth of this pandemic. There is always someone with less money than us; there is always someone who has less power than us. It shifts and morphs, but we struggle constantly with how to use our power the way Jesus did. As parents, we have power over our children. As adult children, we may have power over our aging parents. We may have power over co-workers, over siblings, over friends. Do we recognize when we become the cocky, loud, rich Monopoly player? Are there times when we have taken up more space just because we could?
The gospel is always a duality: it is meant to define our relationship to Jesus, who leads us; and to define our own calling as leaders to others. The Good Shepherd parable is as much as about the example of the shepherd as it is about the cautionary tale of relying on – or becoming – the hired hand. It reminds us that to lead is to risk and sacrifice; if we merely lead to get a payout, then we are not leading at all.
Individual leadership is especially important right now, even if we feel frustrated and helpless about some of the decisions being made for us. In order for our latest lockdown restrictions to flatten this surge, those who have the lowest risk of getting the virus must yet again sacrifice their freedoms for those who are at higher risk. Increasingly the science shows that to stop this pandemic, some hotspots will need to get more supplies of vaccines than other places. In accepting this reality, we become Good Shepherds, and not hired hands.
This week, Erin and I had an interesting conversation with a neighbor. We asked him if he was going to get the vaccine and he said no. He listed his reasons: it wasn’t safe, he didn’t know anyone who had actually gotten sick from COVID-19, and the media lies. You can imagine how that last point went over. Now, to give credit to my wife, she tried to be calm at first. But she had spent the week interviewing families with loved ones in ICU – including a young father who had died just this past Tuesday – and had just finished filing that story. So she was, you might say, a bit frustrated with our neighbor. She pointed out the long history of vaccines being humanity’s most significant medical achievement. We both spoke of the families we knew with loved ones who were gravely sick with COVID-19, or in comas in ICU because their lungs weren’t working. We said how exhausted doctors were urging people to get the first vaccine they were offered. Erin told him how every reporter she knew covering the pandemic had raced – not walked but raced – to get the AztraZeneca vaccine the minute the age limit was lowered – including herself. But the thing is: it didn’t work. Our neighbor was not convinced. He will probably never get the vaccine. And afterwards, when we spoke of that conversation, we both wondered: had we been Good Shepherds, gently leading, or hired hands, dictating? We knew the answer.
In the weeks to come, as in life, we will all be tested. We are tired and frustrated. We will want to judge people who aren’t following the science or the public health guidelines. And yet, at this crucial time, we must try to be Good Shepherds. Lead by example by getting the vaccine as soon as we can; sacrifice for the good of every sheep by staying home and wearing masks; use our resources to help others; and be patient with those who don’t agree with us. Jesus gathered a large flock of diverse people with differing opinions and told us all to love one another, to make space for one another, and to keep watch over one another. That is the Shepherd’s way. Even when the going gets tough, the Good Shepherd leads with love.