If you were paying attention just now during the readings – if you were actively listening, as opposed to wool-gathering – you will have noted two dominant themes today.
The first is of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. The second is closely related to it: The good shepherd is the one who is willing to lay down his life for the sheep. They’re creatures who need the help.
Today, the Fourth Sunday of Easter, is known as Good Shepherd Sunday. This is the closest that the people of this parish [the Church of the Good Shepherd] are going to get to a patronal feast day, so it’s important to make the most of it.
Thanks to the miracle of computer searches, I can now tell you that there are a total of 118 references to shepherds, as well as 200 references to sheep, in the Bible when we combine the Old and New Testaments. 23 of the shepherds and 50 of the citations appear in the relatively brief New Testament. (That’s in the New International Version; your translation may vary.)
The ancient Israelites were herders, and the greatest portion of their flocks were of sheep. Jacob, whose sons would give their names to the tribes of Israel, was a herdsman.
Jacob was an intelligent and an observant man, and he used his understanding of what we would call the science of Mendelian genetics, of dominant and recessive traits, to conspire against his equally tricksy father-in-law, Laban. By encouraging the birth of striped and spotted sheep, which he got to keep, Jacob built the numbers of his own flocks, and thus profit for himself.
David, the youngest son of Jesse, kept his father’s flocks. He was out in the fields with the sheep when the prophet Samuel came calling, looking for the Lord’s new choice of a king to replace the disappointing Saul. David picked up some handy skills with a simple but effective technology, the sling, in protecting those sheep from predators.
By the time of Christ, the local economy had diversified somewhat. Other career paths had opened between “shepherd” and “warrior.” This was fortunate, since neither profession was very highly regarded.
The issues with soldiers, who were often indistinguishable from bandits, aren’t hard to figure out. Soldiers are strong, and armed both with weapons and authority. They take what they want, whether it’s your money, your food supplies, your person, or your life. It’s wise to keep a low profile around them.
The reasons that shepherds were held in low esteem are a little less obvious to us today, but they were then at the bottom of society’s ladder. They tended to be light-fingered drifters, men of no property and no repute. Although hired to tend the sheep, they were unlikely to endanger themselves on behalf of the flock. When the going got tough, they usually simply slipped away.
Shepherds have hard jobs, physically difficult and sometimes dangerous. In lambing season, they can be up all night, helping the ewes in their labor and then standing ready to drive off all the predators who crave newborn lamb as a midnight snack. They’re out in all kinds of weather, and their food rations were typically meager in centuries past.
This isn’t the pretty pastoral picture we get from images of shepherds leaning under trees, playing their flutes while the sheep doze in the shade. They have to work to build the trust of their sheep; the sheep do get to know the shepherd’s voice, and to come when called – sometimes.
We don’t think about how the tough job of the shepherd is when we hear the Christmas story. We don’t think of how radical a concept it is that shepherds first heard of the birth of the Messiah from a cloud of angels, instead of the more respectable and well-to-do folk in town.
But all this makes Jesus’s portrayal of himself as the Good Shepherd considerably more striking than it might have been on its face. Once again, he has identified with the poor and lowly, the despised, the rejects of good society. The shepherd was a part of the reality of first-century life, along with the crucifixion of criminals. but both were parts of that reality that the educated and people who strictly kept the Law preferred not to notice.
The one shepherd who would really care about the sheep, and about keeping them safe, was the owner of the sheep – or the son of the owner.
Then there are the sheep themselves. As the singing mice in the classic movie “Babe” told us, “Sheep are definitely stupid.”
Sheep may be herd animals, but they have a disconcerting tendency to wander off on their own. The paths they take on those journeys often seem to make no sense. (The phrase “wool-gathering” comes from the Scottish Highlands, where small children were sent to gather the bits of wool that caught on the heather and gorse plants as the sheep passed by. It’s a task that took them wandering in seemingly pointless paths around the fields.)
Sheep have ways of getting themselves into situations from which they cannot easily extract themselves. Sheep and lambs need a lot of care. They range over large tracts of land in order to feed themselves, and they can be tough to locate. They’re easy prey for all manner of killers, from wolves and wild dogs to eagles to people.
Sheep frequently act without thinking and against their own interests. Sheep, in other words, are a lot like people.
Both sheep and people need caring leaders to watch over them and lead them in the right direction, to guide them to a safe pasture, to find water and shelter, and, if necessary, to lay down their lives for them.
Shepherds need help in keeping the sheep together when it’s time to move. The traditional assistant has been the dog; now, according to a recent story in the Wall Street Journal, drones are increasingly coming into use to find and round up sheep. But regardless of the nature of that assistant, a shepherd must still be in charge.
For us, as God’s people, Jesus is that shepherd. He came not just for the House of Israel, as he tells his disciples in today’s reading from John, but for all of us.
Jesus, the good shepherd, is calling us, ready to lead us where we need to go. Our responsibility is simply to listen to him and to follow. We know, we have his promise, that he will lead us to the safest of pastures, and that no danger is too great for his protection. With his help, we can fear no evil.
– Sarah Bryan Miller