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GoM16 Unlimited liability (Jn God on Monday
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‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away (…). Because he is a hired hand, he cares nothing for the sheep’ (John 10.11-13).

Welcome to the sixteenth God on Monday reflection on ‘purpose’!

I often listen to the radio show ‘Farming Today’. I do so for two reasons. Firstly, I am a lover of villages and countryside, inspired in part by my experience of rural parish ministry. Secondly, as someone passionate about business, I find myself fascinated by farming. Often farming is romanticized and presented as an activity antithetical to business. But as one of the earliest forms of commerce, and one on which all others rely, farming occupies an honourable place in the business sphere.

When Jesus likens himself to a shepherd, therefore, he is likening himself to a business owner. I use the word ‘owner’ here deliberately, as that is what Jesus does in the passage above. Indeed, his analogy rests on the distinction between a business owner and a business employee. Because the ‘hired hand’ does not own the sheep, he does not care sufficiently for the sheep to guard them from a danger that threatens his personal safety.

Jesus’ analogy also relies on two liberating yet challenging truths about ownership. First, with ownership comes responsibility. Jesus is drawing here on wisdom that undergirds the Hebrew Torah. If, for instance, someone owns a pit but does not put a cover on it, that person is to pay compensation to the owner of an ox that fatally falls into it (Ex 21.33-34). This ownership-responsibility principle can be used to question business models that limit the liability of shareholders, and to promote models based on employee-ownership.

But the key point, and liberating point, of Jesus’ analogy is that there are no limits to the extent to which he will go to care for his people because he treats them as his own precious possessions. This reflects the grand biblical theme drawn from the world of finance: redemption. A transaction has occurred by which God, out of sheer love, has assumed unlimited liability by buying back his people from a previous owner.

These two points can teach us that taking responsibility is central to individual and corporate purpose. There can be no ‘duty free’ deployment of people or assets; the so-called free market is not free of obligation. They can also teach us that we are called to value the people and things God has put in our care as if we have paid for them with our own lives. In doing so, we imitate God and discover what on earth we are here for.

Peter S Heslam, Director, Faith in Business

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Peter refers to employee-ownership in the above reflection. For a short article of his on this subject, published in Faith in Business Quarterly, click here.
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