The Hired Hand

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Easter Sunday 4
April 25, 2021
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: The hired hand as a heroic, perhaps mythic figure, is ingrained into the fabric of American's history, especially in the West. Often, hired hands were nomadic, working on a ranch in Wyoming in the summer and Arizona in the winter. Jesus mentions the hired hand in today's gospel reading, so the concept is worth another look. What we find out is that possibly Jesus himself was a hired hand. Or does he really fit this definition? Perhaps there is, as Jesus suggests, a crucial difference between himself as the "Good Shepherd" and a hired hand.

Harry Collings and Arch Harris are two saddle tramps who've been drifting around the southwestern United States for almost a decade. Most people would call them ne'er-do-wells, lacking ambition, purpose and skills; spending a lot of time playing cards and boozing - to avoid the unfortunate experience of landing steady work. They're the kind of guys who can strut sitting down. They've got their pride.

They eke out a living by doing odd jobs, helping out on farms and ranches, busting broncos, shoeing horses, moving irrigation pipe, tending cattle or sheep or working the spud harvest in southern Idaho. Stuff like that.

They're good-old-boys, not causing too much trouble.

Collings eventually tires of this nomadic life and decides to travel hundreds of miles to see Hannah, the wife he left a long time ago. Hannah gives him a frosty welcome. But she has a farm and figures she could use some help. She allows him to stay, but only as a hired hand. And so he does.

This is an abbreviated version of the plot of an obscure western 1971 film called The Hired Hand starring Peter Fonda as Collings and Warren Oates as Harris. The Collings and Harris characters offer what we might consider the archetype of "the hired hand," that is, a lean but brawny farm hand, with a leathery face, perhaps a dirty cowboy hat pulled low over his brow. He keeps busy doing manual labor, "wrassling" a longhorn or whatever else needs to be done around the ranch.

Today, a hired hand might also refer to a gardener or a slack-jawed pool boy, but the phrase generally applies to farming or ranch life.

In today's gospel reading, the hired hand is linked to the sheep industry, and evidently it was not uncommon for a shepherd to be an employee of the person who owned the flock.

What does a shepherd do?

So if you're hired to be a shepherd, what exactly are you expected to do?

A shepherd has one thing to do: Keep sheep safe. That's it.

The safety and welfare of the flock is a shepherd's absolute number-one priority. This means that a shepherd must find good pasture for the sheep. He must lead them to safe water. He must make sure that they do not munch on poisonous plants. He must guard the flock against predators.

Jesus alludes to this job description when he mentions the wolves that threaten a flock. Sheep, for reasons we do not need to explain here, are vulnerable animals. They're easy targets for predators when unprotected. The expression "a wolf in sheep's clothing" underscores the ease with which a sheep could be singled out for destruction.

The duties of a shepherd are famously outlined in Psalm 23. There, the psalmist mentions "green pastures" and "still waters." He refers to elements of danger ("the darkest valley") and the rod and staff of a shepherd. When injured, the wounded sheep will be medicated with oil.

In short, the sheep are the shepherd's life. And, it's a life that can be dangerous. A shepherd could lose his life - if he indeed made saving the life of the flock his primary responsibility.

Keep the sheep safe. This is what a shepherd does.

Two hired hands?

If a shepherd has one job to do, then what does a hired hand do?

If someone is hired to take care of the sheep, then that someone has the same responsibility as the shepherd. In fact, he is the shepherd. The hired hand has been hired to be a shepherd. Therefore, the hired hand has one thing to do: keep the sheep safe .

Yet Jesus says in verse 12 that the hired hand is not the shepherd: "The hired hand, who is not the shepherd ...."

But wait! You could also make the argument that there are two hired hands in this scenario that Jesus describes: Jesus and the other guy.

Most shepherds did not own the flocks they tended. Thus, most shepherds in the pastoral life of Jesus' day were, in fact, hired hands. So, in identifying himself as a shepherd, Jesus is using a metaphor in which he also plays the role of a hired hand.

So are there two hired hands in this passage, or two shepherds?

Well, neither. There is a third alternative.

Jesus claims that, unlike most shepherds, he does, in fact, "own" this flock.1

The third alternative, then, is that there is one shepherd and one hired hand in this text. The difference between Jesus and the hired hand is a crucial one.

But what is it?

A volunteer

The difference is this: Jesus has volunteered to do the job for free ; the hired hand won't work unless he gets paid, and he can quit whenever he wants to - and usually does.

Jesus is a volunteer. The Bible is clear about this from the get-go. Just take another look at Philippians 2 and reread verses 5-11. This well-known text describes the voluntary self-emptying of the Son of God. He robed himself in human flesh. He was not compelled to do so: "Who, though he was in the form of God, ... emptied himself, ... being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he ... became obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross."2

When someone volunteers to do an onerous task - and tending sheep is no picnic - that person definitely has some good qualities. Thank God for people who offer freely to take one for the team, to do the dirty work, to do the stuff no one else wants to do. We're glad there are people like this in the world.

No surprise then, that Jesus would differentiate between himself and the other guy who is paid to take care of the sheep . Jesus not immodestly calls himself the "good" shepherd because he's doing this for free.

Jesus puts great stress in this passage on the voluntary nature of his work. He is no Henry Collings or Arch Harris bumming around Galilee looking for a job on a fishing boat mending nets or gutting tilapia, or for a job tending a flock of sheep and sleeping with them at night.

He not only does the shepherding thing for free, but he loves what he's doing, and he loves the sheep he has volunteered to tend. One time, he tells the story of a shepherd who has 100 sheep, and notices that one is missing. He secures the 99, and then goes off in search of just one lost sheep - and finds it!3You have to love your job to be that conscientious.

For Jesus, of course, it wasn't a "job." How do we know this? Because, not only is he working for free and loving what he does, he's willing to lay down his life to protect the flock or to find one lost lamb. You don't do that if your work is just a "job."

The hired hand has a job.

The Good Shepherd has a mission.

When the wolf stalks the door, the hired hand hits the road.

A hired hand is paid to watch the sheep, Jesus says, but he's not paid to die for them. Oh no. When the wolf shows up for an entrée of mutton stew, the hired hand flees faster than lightning. He's gone, and he ain't comin' back. He "does not care for the sheep," Jesus says.

Not so the Good Shepherd; he offers his life for the flock he loves: "I lay down my life for the sheep. ... I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again."

So, Jesus sets the record straight: No one is going to take his life. He is voluntarily giving it up like a good shepherd would for his flock. He will not, and did not, run from the wolf. He walked to Calvary, he bore his cross and he opened his arms upon the cross to embrace the world.

And it was a mission and a destiny for which he volunteered.

The irony

So what does all of this have to do with us today?

Here's the thing: Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was not forcibly detained and executed against his will . He voluntarily surrendered his life. He had the motive, means and opportunity to stay alive.

The motive? To stay alive! The means? The innumerable hosts of heaven? The opportunity? Any time he was ready.

This is important because?

Because a savior who cannot get off that cross isn't too much of a savior, now is he? Matthew's gospel makes the same point in chapter 27: "Those who passed by derided him, '... Save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.' ... 'He saved others; he cannot save himself.'" 4

Of course, the passersby, the chief priests, scribes and elders were right: Ironically, he could not save himself, without losing those he'd saved. The only way to save others was to resolutely stay on that hideous cross and let others mock him. The only way to save others was to keep his mouth shut, refusing to call on a host of armies ready to immolate the earth and snatch the Son of God from destruction.

Jesus voluntarily laid down his life, denying himself and taking up his cross. Interestingly, it's the very thing he said his disciples must do in order to follow him: deny themselves and take up a cross.

And the tough part: And do this for love - love for God and love of God's lambs.

So, are we hired hands - people will hire on as long as there's something in it for us? Or are we followers, servants and disciples for the love of Jesus; for the love of God?

Jesus invites us to imitate his example, and lay down our lives, figuratively if not literally, for the sake of the gospel.