Pastoral Care and the Knowledge of God

Jesus casts a compelling vision of care in John chapter 10. In a world filled with strangers, thieves and robbers, where wolves abound, there is one that cares – and Jesus is unapologetic about claiming to be that one! Jesus is the Good Shepherd (Jn 10:11).

Jesus’ claim to be the Good Shepherd draws deeply on older passages of Scripture such as Ezekiel 34 in which the ancient leaders of Israel are castigated for their self-interest and uncaring attitudes. Those ‘shepherds’ were well-fed but forfeited their right to shepherd. They slaughtered the choice animals, but did not take care of the flock. They did not strengthen the weak or heal the sick or bind up the injured. They did not bring back the strays or search for the lost. They ruled them harshly and brutally (Ez. 34:3-4). Their failure in leadership was a failure to care.

The consequences of failure to care were that the so-called shepherds came under judgement and that the Sovereign Lord would himself become the shepherd of Israel. The characteristics of YHWH the Shepherd in Ezekiel 34 look a lot like the Good Shepherd of John 10. The Good Shepherd searches for his sheep (by name). He leads them to pasture. He protects them (even at the cost of his life), and he unites the sheep into one flock rather than let them be scattered, lost and vulnerable to attack. Of special note, however, is the outcome of the Lord’s shepherding as described in Ezekiel 34:30f,

Then they will know that I, the Lord their God, am with them and that they, the Israelites, are my people,’ declares the Sovereign Lord. ‘You are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture, and I am your God, declares the Sovereign Lord.

The outcome of having YHWH as Shepherd, of being pastored well, is that Israel would know their God and know that he is with them.

Here the Lord places the experience of care, being safe, free from fear and shame, as the precursor to deep knowledge and assurance in God.

Knowing and caring are connected in Ezekiel in a way which reverses two of our common ways of thinking about care.

We sometimes hear it said that not teaching or proclaiming the gospel (not promoting the knowledge of God) would be uncaring, and of course that is true, but notice that it is not the emphasis of Ezekiel. Here the Lord places the experience of care, being safe, free from fear and shame, as the precursor to deep knowledge and assurance in God. Similarly, we often (rightly) value learning and knowing in order to care, but here (and elsewhere in Scripture) knowing, in a deep personal way, is the outcome of receiving care. John illustrates this for us with the story of the washing of the disciples’ feet (Jn 13:1-17). There, Jesus explicitly tells the disciples (v.7) that having received this symbolic care they would come to know what Jesus is doing. We might also see a reflection of care preceding knowledge in Jesus’ new commandment, “by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (Jn 13:35). The outcome of care is knowledge of God.

But when Jesus takes for himself the title of Good Shepherd in John 10, he is not only thinking of Ezekiel. The more immediate context is his conflict with the Pharisees in the previous chapter where his claim to care, to be the true Shepherd of Israel, stands as a powerful contrast to the Pharisees and their lack of genuine care. The well-known incident of the healing of the man who was born blind (Jn 9), starts with a question from the disciples but becomes an inquisition on the part of the Pharisees. Far from rejoicing that the blind man sees (or that Isaiah’s “day” might be at hand, Is. 29:18), they enforce the Sabbath (Jn 9:14), they control the synagogues (Jn 9:22), and their behaviour towards the formerly blind man is high-handed (Jn 9:24-34).

It becomes clear that the Pharisees are themselves blind to “the works of God displayed” in the formerly blind man, (Jn 9:3). In spite of their claim to knowledge (we know this man is a sinner, Jn 9:24) and their appropriation of Moses (Jn 9:28-29), the Pharisees are in fact blind, and culpably so (Jn 9:41).

Right at the outset of the man born blind story, Jesus dismisses the paradigm of ‘sin’ and provides an alternate framework by which the man’s situation can be understood (Jn 9:3). In doing so Jesus avoids the error of Job’s comforters who endeavour to press Job’s experience into the dominant (but in this case irrelevant) paradigms of their knowledge. What is it that enables Jesus to set aside the sin paradigm? Jesus provides insight into that in John 10:15 where he describes himself as knowing and being known by his Father in Heaven. Jesus knows the tender heart of YHWH towards his flock, and the Heavenly Father knows the love and compassion of Jesus. Fortified with, and in, this knowledge, Jesus is not caught off-guard by the disciples’ question, nor by the Pharisees’ behaviour. Knowing his Father and being known by Him, Jesus is able to keep the focus where it needs to be, on “the works of God displayed” (Jn 9:3).

Interestingly, Jesus reintroduces the concept of sin at the end of the story (Jn 9:41). Here he applies it not to the one who suffers, but to the ones who claim to have knowledge but in fact are blind to the work (and character) of God, namely the Pharisees.

Jesus’ vision of care is the true unveiling, and living out, of the very heart of God himself. God cares!

Against this background, Jesus announces himself as the Good Shepherd. In doing so he aligns himself intimately with the God of Israel. He knows him and is known by him. The works of grace and compassion he does are done in his Father’s name and have been given to him to perform (Jn 10:25-33). This is what I find so compelling about Jesus’ vision of care – it is the true unveiling, and living out, of the very heart of God himself. God cares!

In the light of Jesus’ vision of care, of true pastoring, let me offer some brief observations:

  • Christ-like pastoral care has a goal – it is that others would come to that deep, personal knowledge that God indeed is their God, their safety and their sustenance.
  • Christ-like pastoral care does not thoughtlessly apply the dominant paradigms of either psychology or theology but finds ways to address individuals in their specific situations out of a rich knowledge of the character of God.
  • Christ-like pastoral care does those works which lift people up, out of darkness and incapacity into light and liberty, works that reflect the character of God, that speak of the great and glorious coming day in which grace and truth will be fully known.

Those of us who aspire to care in the likeness of Christ do well to cultivate our knowing and being known by God. Jesus is clear, there are blind guides, there are thieves and robbers, and those who “climb in some other way” (Jn 10:1). Pastoral care would not be very pastoral if our knowledge of God does not allow us to recognise where the wolves may be, to recognise even where our own blind spots may be. And conscious of this, we might with the psalmist invite God to know us: “Search me, Oh God, and know my heart, …” (Ps. 139:23).

Richard was a Baptist minister for over 20 years, is a counsellor in private practice and an independent supervisor of pastors and clergy. His work experience has also included cross-cultural work, community development, suicide prevention, disability service assurance and government funding in the not-for-profit sector. His PhD is in the mental health of men who retire early.

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