Sunday, April 19, 2015

John 10.11-18: The Hireling Shepherd

The Gospel reading for Easter 4B (John 10:11-18) includes the good, the bad and the ugly of shepherding. It includes the familiar assertion by Jesus that he is the good shepherd who would and does lay down his life for the sheep.

But artists aren't always drawn to the good. Sometimes the bad and/or the ugly are more interesting to draw. In the case of William Holman Hunt, it seems that the bad and the ugly were more prevalent, so that was his focus. His painting is titled "The Hireling Shepherd," and though it is not a direct representation of John 10 (there is no wolf in the painting), it does still capture the message of the text.
William Holman Hunt. The Hireling Shepherd. 1851. Manchester City Galleries, Manchester, England, UK. 
Hunt has shown a shepherd whose mind is clearly not on his sheep. He is fully engaged with the young woman who has wandered by, and slung on his back is a keg for beer or cider, so no doubt he has or will offer to share that with her. But even as he pursues her, he foreshadows the results of his neglect. In his left hand he has a death's head moth with which he is trying to impress her. The moth, whose very name is a reminder of mortality should cast a shadow over the composition. For death is surely what will happen to the sheep.

In the right background, a sheep is about to wander into a wheatfield. Sheep normally forage for green pasture plants like clover and grass. While sheep can (and do) eat grain, eating too much too quickly can lead to digestive and other problems. An unattended sheep, like a kid turned loose in a candy store, will no doubt eat both too much and too quickly. The farmer raising the wheat will probably not be thrilled to have one (or eventually more) sheep trampling his crop. The shepherd does not seem to care about either eventuality.

Closer to the shepherd, at least physically, is the lamb in the lap of the "shepherdess". Less than an arm's length away from the one(s) who should care for it, the lamb is being supplied with a "feast" of green apples. The apples, judging by their size in relation to the shepherd's hands, seem to be unripe. These green, sour apples will not be good for the young creature.

Hunt claimed that the main source for the picture was Shakespeare (King Lear, III.6). But it is hard to discount the gospels as well. Hunt did identify the actions of the clergy of his day as examples of this subject. In a letter from 1897 he wrote:
Shakespeare's song represents a Shepherd who is neglecting his real duty of guarding the sheep: instead of using his voice in truthfully performing his duty, he is using his "minikin mouth" in some idle way. He was a type thus of other muddle headed pastors who instead of performing their services to their flock — which is in constant peril — discuss vain questions of no value to any human soul. My fool has found a death's head moth, and this fills his little mind with forebodings of evil and he takes it to an equally sage counsellor for her opinion. [cited in J.D. Macmillan, "Holman Hunt's Hireling Shepherd: Some Reflections on a Victorian Pastoral," The Art Bulletin, vol. 54, no. 2 (June 1972): 188. 

The careless shepherd in the picture should indeed be more attentive to his flock, and every pastor should take note, especially as the word pastor is, in Latin, the word for shepherd. It is worth remembering, though, that the Reformation doctrine of the priesthood of all believers makes attentive care for God's flock incumbent on all believers, not just clergy.

The Good Shepherd cares for chickens, too. Well, sort of. See more about this catacomb painting on the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page. Click on the link.

For thoughts on Acts 4:5-12, click here.

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