The Fellowship of Life
a Christian-based vegetarian network founded in 1973


What Christ meant when he said: 'Feed my sheep'

By Malcolm Muggeridge

From the 'Christmas Special' supplement to the Catholic Herald dated December 1, 1972

An advantage of being, as I am, only a belated reader of the New Testament, is that one often finds a freshness of enchantment in sentences and phrases which, I imagine, come to seem commonplace to more erudite and systematic readers. This is what happened with the three words, "Feed my sheep."
I found myself saying them over and over with a sense of great joyfulness, as though they were the key to some special revelation. One of those crystalisations of meaning which mystics and poets fashion for us.
They occur, of course, in a rather curious thrice-repeated exchange between Peter and the Risen Christ, in which, having asked Peter three times if he loved him, and being assured each time that he did, Jesus added, first, "Feed my lambs," and then, the other two times, "Feed my sheep."
It irresistibly recalls that threefold denial of his Master of which poor Peter had been guilty shortly before - something I can never recall without an agonizing pang at having likewise offended, not just once on a dramatic occasion, but again and again.
A shepherd and his flock provided Jesus with one of his favourite images. Even today in the Holy Land one can easily see why. The shepherd tending his sheep, finding them shade and water, seeing that none stray too far away, picking up in his arms one who may be lame, or too small to keep up with the others, is still a familiar sight. It perfectly demonstrates in simple earthly terms Jesus's purpose in coming among us; he was the Good Shepherd, and so he has been known through the centuries.
I find it rather sad to reflect that this imagery is soon to become obsolete and incomprehensible in our technological world, if it hasn't become so already. One can scarcely look for the Good Shepherd in factory farms, where animals are accorded just enough statutory room to stand up in; where they never see the light of the sun, or the green of the grass, or the blue of the sky. Still less in the manufacture of our food requirements from petroleum products and other such unappetising substances.
Who, I wonder, will be able to detect the image of a Saviour in the man with the hormone-injector, whose ministrations are liable to transform our domestic animals into weird, unseemly, top-heavy creatures, mercifully hidden from our view?
Surely, the first necessity we are under is to respect life; every aspect of it. Not just those of our fellow-men who are dear and familiar to us; our families and friends. Nor even just our fellow-humans who share the same essential experience of living.
All and every manifestation of life; the croak of a frog, the contour of a hill, even the very particles of desert dust and the obscure flowering of hidden verges. All that lives and is on our small earth and in the illimitable universe.
So "Feed my sheep" applies to the whole flock, black, white and piebald. There are no exceptions. And if we fail in according this respect to life as such, if in our insensate greed we wreck and impoverish and poison our human habitation, then we may be sure that in the long run we shall wreck and impoverish and poison ourselves.
For never let it be forgotten that we, too, can be plausibly regarded as being more productive, more hygienic, more controllable, in conditioned captivity than free-ranging. Shades of the broiler-house closing around us; with the prospect of being perfectly born under genetic control, and of perfectly dying when, in the estimation of doctor-priests, our carcasses no longer rate sustaining.
Broiler houses in chromium and glass climbing into the sky, for men not fowl; computers working out our mortal destiny as beautifully as they do the census or the trade returns, and all impediments in our pursuit of happiness counteracted by instant contraception, abortion and divorce - those three pillars of contemporary felicity.
Maybe even death itself abolished; our bodies maintained like vintage cars, kept on the road indefinitely by replacing their parts as they wear out. Instead of carburetors and plugs, livers and kidneys and hearts; perhaps in time genitals and brains as well.
We live in a society which can produce in more or less unlimited quantities everything, and more than everything, we can possibly want to feed and clothe and divert ourselves. From turbines to potato crisps, from giant airliners to birth pills - everything.
The problem with us is not food supplies, but appetite. How to induce us to eat when we're not hungry, to discard what is not worn out, to indulge every whim and fancy that vanity and the senses can be lured into entertaining.
So appeals to cupidity, appeals to sensuality, appeals to morbidity, all on behalf of the great Moloch - consumption. The same message spelt out in neon lights, printed in words, embellished in colour, yelled in discotheques, whispered by crooners, related to the built-in urges of our way of life - money, sex and violence.
An enormous flourishing industry, designed to ensure that greed never flags, sensuality never abates; that our heart's desire is caught forever in traps that are fastened to the earth and baited with flesh.
Then the other side of the picture. Calcutta in the early morning; the streets strewn with the sleeping destitute and homeless, the garbage piled high and a few early risers poking about in it for something edible. A macabre fantasy; a tiny corner of a vast and mounting tragedy involving the greater part of the human race. 
Confronted with this crazy contradiction between, on the one hand, so many hungry sheep, and, on the other, so many over-indulged ones under constant pressure and persuasion to indulge themselves further, what is to be done? There are those who very properly attempt to rectify the balance by charitable endeavour or political agitation.
Others, particularly among the young, consider that the only valid answer is yet another revolution whereby, as is promised in the "Magnificat", the hungry will be filled with good things and the rich sent away empty. A more self-righteous approach to the problem lies in attributing the trouble to there being too many people in the world. 
When I was young the same sort of attitude was taken by the middle and upper classes towards the poor. They had selfishly become too numerous, they were told. So today, when the so-called developing nations ask for bread, we give them birth pills.
Has there ever, I wonder, been a stranger evangel than this - missionaries of sterility, colporteurs of contraceptives; bearers, as though it were our civilisation's proudest product, of ingeniously devised means to make procreation un-procreative? "Feed my sheep", yes, but not, surely, with birth pills!
Jesus himself well understood what poverty is from first-hand experience. He lived for the most part among the poor, and as the Gospels tell us, unlike foxes which have holes and the birds of the air which have nests, often had nowhere to lay his head. Through the centuries that followed some of the most attractive and effective of his followers, from St. Francis to Mother Teresa, have sought and loved poverty for his sake.
Jesus also knew what riches were and what they do to people. In the Roman cities of Tiberius and Capernaum, whose ruins one may see today by the lake of Galilee, he could observe a way of life uncommonly like ours; an affluent, permissive society dedicated to growing ever more affluent and permissive, with the games providing, like our media, the vicarious and morally debilitating excitement of violence and eroticism. 
When Jesus said "Feed my sheep" he was not, then, launching a charitable appeal, or proclaiming a revolution, or even preparing the way for a family-planning service.
What was to come of his words was the New Testament, not the New Statesman. He himself, he said, was the bread of life, and no one partaking of it would ever again hunger or thirst. In twentieth century terms this seems like expressing indifference to actual physical hunger and deprivation, but quite the opposite was the case.
Through the life and teaching of Jesus we may know how the suffering of every living creature, even of a sparrow falling to the ground, is part of the suffering of God, and that His purpose for us comprises seeking in all circumstances to relieve suffering and to help and support the weak and the oppressed.
How to put into words this innermost mystery of the Christian Faith? That it is only in being indifferent to our bodily needs that we can truly care about them in others. That it is only in seeing beyond this world that we can truly see into its troubles and its beauties, and only in being a stranger here on earth and among our fellow-men that the earth can be so dear a home and mankind so dear a family. 
That to live we must die.
It was accompanying Mother Teresa to the scene of the various activities of her Missionaries of Charity, to the house of the dying where derelicts from the streets are brought in so that at least in their last moments they may see a loving face and hear a word of love, to the homes for unwanted children sometimes pulled out of dustbins, and to the leper settlements, that I came nearest to understanding for a moment what Jesus meant by feeding his sheep.
For I had reached beyond horror and beyond compassion, into an awareness never before experienced that somehow these dying and derelict human beings, these abandoned children and lepers with stumps instead of arms, were not repulsive or pitiable, but brothers and sisters upon whom, through the agency of Mother Teresa's perfect dedication, the bright radiance of God's universal love shone, as it did on all creation.
Reproduced with thanks.

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