It might seem strange to dedicate a blog to this topic, but indulge me for a few moments. We live in a culture that assumes, or at least aspires to, an abundance of care. We care for our children, we long for a partner who cares about us, we pay people to care when we can’t do it ourselves, and we tend to think that not caring, or pretending not to care, are immature or deficient attitudes. Not only this, but our giving care to others frequently gives meaning to our lives, and our receiving care from others makes us feel accepted and valued.
So what does it mean to care? To care is to allow the welfare or wellbeing of others to influence us towards them. The influence may be over our emotional state or in our attitudes and behaviours. Caring is a product of being social, of being in relationship, of acknowledging value in others (and in things). Caring tends to move us outside of ourselves, to think, feel and act towards the other in beneficial ways.
In the Christian tradition care flows from the fact that God himself cares. God is not indifferent to our struggles and suffering but is deeply concerned for humanity. He hears the blood of Able crying out from the ground, he cares for Noah and his family and gives them hope, and he allows Abraham to engage him on the fate of Sodom. In his covenant with Abraham God will bless humanity. The loving kindness of God leads him to rescue and restore his people when they cry out to him.
The care of God for his people came to be associated over the centuries with the image of the shepherd and the sheep, that is, with pastoral images of care. In Numbers 27:16-17 Moses asks the Lord for a “shepherd”, a leader for his people. David the king becomes that “shepherd of Israel” (2 Samuel) and in turn is shepherded by the Lord (Ps.23). The prophets lament the failings of Israel’s shepherds and long for a time when God himself will shepherd his flock (Jeremiah 31:10).
In Jesus we see the embodiment of his Father’s character. Jesus is moved with compassion for the crowds (Matt.9:26), for those in distress (Matt. 20:34), and for Jerusalem (Matt.23:37). He sorrows over loss and death (Jn.11:35) and from the cross commends his mother into the care of the disciple Jesus loved (Jn.19:27).
Knowing and caring are intimately bound together, in a relationship of divine and human engagement.
In John 10 Jesus reflects on his care of people (in contrast to that of the Pharisees) and expresses it in explicitly pastoral imagery. He is the door through which sheep find safety, and his voice is recognised and followed by his sheep, and it leads them to pasture (nourishment). Jesus contrasts the work of those who “steal and kill and destroy” the sheep with his own bringing life to the full (Jn.10:10). The good shepherd lays down his life in sacrifice rather than see harm come to the sheep (Jn.10:11). The good shepherd knows his sheep and is known by them. This is a relationship of intimacy and vulnerability. And it reflects the quality of relationship which Jesus has with his Heavenly Father. Knowing and caring are intimately bound together, in a relationship of divine and human engagement.
This then is the distinctively Christian character of pastoral care. It is not just a concern for others’ welfare, it is characterised by both deep knowledge of God and willingness to sacrifice (lay down life). It reflects the character of God and imitates (in some small ways) the life and love of the Lord Jesus.
All of this stands in stark contrast to the pantheon of Greek or Roman gods! Their concerns, what they cared about, were their all too capricious, pitiless exploits which would advance their own interests. Nor were the social ideals of the late Roman Empire designed to foster true care or engagement. The Stoics regarded mercy as a character flaw, a lapse in which soft emotion clouded clear judgement. Where care was displayed (or even sacrifice), it frequently was utilitarian in nature, serving to consolidate a person’s reputation or standing in society. Sometimes, as in the case of orphan farming, care was commercial in nature.
In the world of the first century, the compassionate sacrifice of Jesus, the shepherd who stands between the wolves and the flock, is outstanding.
In the world of the first century, the compassionate sacrifice of Jesus, the shepherd who stands between the wolves and the flock (Jn.10:11-12), is outstanding. In fact it is unique! Both Jewish and Roman culture was critiqued by Jesus’ exhortation to love enemies and pray for persecutors (Matt.5:43-47). And Jesus is at pains to point out that such behaviours are a reflection of the heart of his Father God, his children reflect that family trait (v.45). Jesus was in effect laying the foundation for a new culture, a culture of sacrificial care.
Jesus styles himself as a new Moses, giving a new law to a new people (his followers). His new commandment is to imitate his care, “Love one another, as I have loved you!” (Jn.13:34) . This commandment is set firmly in the context of Jesus anticipating his departure from earth. In his absence it was compassion for one another that was to characterise his followers. More than this, the outworking of Jesus’ love in the lives of his followers, this care for one another, would stand as a sign for others, a testimony for everyone, that this caring community were indeed followers of Jesus.
We might debate whether the 21st century culture of care reflects anything of Jesus’ vision of selfless action for the wellbeing of others in the deep knowledge of God. But what we cannot deny is that “care” has become a cultural commodity, an item to be insured, and a virtue to be signalled. As followers of Jesus, let us not forget that the origin of Pastoral Care is the very heart of God.
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.