Sheep and shepherds are the theme in the readings today. They crop up a lot in the Bible as keeping sheep was a common occupation, which is perfectly understandable. Sheep give milk, wool, meat and leather. They are very good at finding enough to eat in quite rough terrain. They are a very useful animal for a family to keep. They continue to be very useful to us now.
For city dwellers, it’s hard to connect with rural images, unless they have grown up or spent holidays in the countryside. I was fortunate enough to grow up in a small market town. I could see fields from the windows of our house and used to love watching for the first lambs to appear. My mother’s family were all farmers and so I had opportunities to visit farms. I also saw sheepdog trials. These are competitions where a farmer and his sheepdog have to complete some tasks with a group of sheep which they haven’t worked with before. I was always fascinated by the way the dog would lie low in the grass and then move in response to various whistles from the farmer. The dog could round up the sheep in a bunch and drive them into a small pen, usually with a little help from the farmer. Often at least one sheep would have other ideas and decide to try to go in the wrong direction but, in the end, all would be collected up and placed in the pen. It was amazing how man and dog could work so well together, understanding one another and achieving a task even if the sheep were uncooperative.
Of course, what we see in that kind of shepherding is an excellent relationship between the man and his dog. In fact, since 1976 there has been a UK TV programme called ‘One man and his dog’ which shows shepherds working with their sheepdogs. The shepherds (all men at first but now women are involved also) are usually very proud of their dogs, having known them since they were puppies and trained them over the years to understand whistles and shouts. A shepherd with a dog or dogs can do far more than even a group of shepherds can do together.
In order to understand what Jesus means by his teaching, it’s necessary to revise the picture of the shepherd and how he worked (and in some places still works). For the biblical shepherd, there were no dogs and no driving involved. The relationship was between shepherd and sheep, not shepherd and dog. The shepherd walked ahead of his sheep, calling, singing and whistling. The sheep, who grew up hearing that voice, knew who to follow.
Jesus is picturing what might happen if all is not well for the sheep. Normally a sheepfold was a fenced or walled enclosure with a single gap as an entrance. At night sheep, quite possibly from several flocks, were brought into the fold and then someone lay over the entrance, acting as both gate and guard, to keep the sheep safe from wandering away and from intruders. Although the guard would often be a deputy or employee, Jesus likened himself to the gate as well as to the shepherd. Anyone wanting to steal the sheep would need to climb in over the wall. Even if they managed that, sheep are not as stupid as we might sometimes imagine. They would retreat from the thief and huddle together as they would know it was a stranger. I imagine that would give the guard time to react.
Normally, of course, it would be the shepherd who would come to the sheepfold in the morning to collect the sheep. Whoever was guarding the gate would know the shepherd and the sheep would certainly know him. As he called them each by name, they would follow out of the fold to the pasture the shepherd had selected for the day.
Although this picture of the shepherd is not immediately related to the lives of many of us, it has plenty to teach us. As Psalm 23 says, God – the Lord – is our shepherd, and here Jesus implies that he is the shepherd (later in the same passage he says this openly: ‘I am the Good Shepherd’). If we are in any doubt, this saying of Jesus tells us that he and God are one. What is true of God is true of his Son.
Jesus has gone ahead of us and has encountered the dangers in our path and dealt with them. He has experienced the worst that people can throw at him. The valley of the shadow of death is not something to be feared if Jesus is ahead of us because we know that Jesus has conquered death. Those who cause trouble cannot prevent Jesus providing good for us as he intends. Like any shepherd, he is intent on leading us to places where we can be fed and refreshed. As long as we listen to his voice and follow him, we will travel the paths of righteousness.
Of course, although sheep know the shepherd’s voice, that doesn’t mean that they always follow as they should. One of Jesus’ most famous parables is about the lost sheep, which presumably became so engrossed in something that it failed to follow the shepherd. As Peter writes: “For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.” In Peter’s words there is the echo of Jesus as the gate of the sheepfold. As we return, Jesus – the one who will never forget our names – is there as our guardian and protector waiting to admit us back into the fold.
The promises in Psalm 23 and in Jesus’ words about the shepherd are encouraging. The psalmist is sure that goodness and mercy will be with him all of his life and in the end he will live with God permanently. Jesus confirms that coming to him will result in our safety, our nourishment and abundant life, life that really is life.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor