In today’s reading, and not for the first time, Jesus identifies himself as a shepherd: a common laborer who works with his hands, whose shoulders ache, whose job is never done.
The full import of the relationship between sheep and shepherd may not hold much meaning for us today. Being sheep-like or sheepish might not align with our self-image. I am an individual. Educated. Intelligent. Independent. I have a mind of my own. I can take care of myself. Sheep? Docile. Dumb. Dependent. They need someone to look after them. I don’t.
But on that winter day in Jerusalem, for those who asked Jesus to tell them plainly, not to keep them in suspense, his reference to shepherd and sheep would immediately resonate with what they knew of everyday life, and of scripture.
This image of shepherd and sheep runs like a golden thread through the fabric of Scripture – from Genesis, when Israel blesses Joseph, calling on “the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day” all the way through to Revelation. Since the role of shepherd never changed, the metaphor was preserved for thousands of years. Think of the ancient stories of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel and Leah. In the shepherd’s world, the eternal values of caring and sharing were constant.
But the shepherd / sheep image comes from an agrarian age long gone for most of us. It is not an easy thing for people who seldom see sheep and most likely have never seen shepherds in action to comprehend the rich meaning of this ancient metaphor.
So now, thousands of years later, how can we come to an understanding of the imagery and meaning of the Good Shepherd that makes sense to our sophisticated, post-Enlightenment, urbanized minds? How can we reconcile the image of Jesus as shepherd – easy to accept – with the corollary image of ourselves as sheep – not so easy? How can the relationship between the Good Shepherd and his flock be seen not just as romantic, but as relevant?
Here’s a clue. It’s not about us. It’s about Jesus.
So let’s turn our attention away from ourselves, to Jesus. Let us set aside, at least for a few minutes, whatever objection we might have to seeing ourselves as sheep, and enter into the ancient, eternal world of sheep and shepherd.
Jesus is clear that he is a shepherd – not sort-of a shepherd or like-a shepherd. Earlier in John’s Gospel, he claims his identity as shepherd in no uncertain terms, and this story builds on the theme. He is equally clear that his followers are sheep. Not sort-of sheep, or like-sheep. He says unequivocally, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me…”
In Jesus’ day, as long before, the important job of shepherd was entrusted only to the most conscientious members of the tribe. The job was important because sheep were important. They were central to the tribe’s survival, to their physical health and spiritual well-being. Sheep provided meat and milk for sustenance. Their wool was spun and woven into cloth; their hides made utilitarian leather. The paschal lamb offered as a sacrifice was not dispensable but precious. The ritual was not easy, but essential. For all these reasons and more, sheep warranted the best attention you could give them.
For thousands of years, knowledge of caring for these animals was passed from generation to generation, from father to son. We might say that Jesus, too, learned how to be a shepherd from his father – the God who in psalm 80, for example, is called the “shepherd of Israel, …who lead[s] Joseph’s descendants like a flock…”
An experienced shepherd would show his son how the shepherd stays with the flock and leads them from one grassy area to the next. The shepherd not only feeds the sheep, he protects them from harm. He drives away the wild animals with a club or rod. He and his flock sleep under the same stars and are chilled by the same wind and rain, and exhausted by the same burning heat. A drink of cool water tastes as good to the shepherd as it does to his flock. They are in it together, in every way. Something of the resulting compassion is implicated in the story Jesus tells of a shepherd who loses one of one hundred sheep and will not rest till he finds it.
As we hear in the 23rd psalm, the shepherd his flock, never drives them. Likewise, in John’s gospel, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them and they follow me….” The shepherd goes into a field before his flock in order to remove any hazards — snakes or scorpions or sharp brambles that could harm them. Some plants are poisonous to sheep – the shepherd is on the lookout for such deadly weeds and tears them up and burns them.
Despite the shepherd’s best intentions, some sheep inevitably get hurt. Then the shepherd cares for the injured, washing out their cuts and pouring sweet olive oil on the wounds – just as we read about in the tale of the good Samaritan.
If the animal is uncomfortable or in pain, the shepherd offers a mixture of fermented hemp or barley mixed with honey and therapeutic herbs in an earthen bowl – the cup that “runneth over.” The sick animal is fed this analgesic mixture to blunt the pain and allow time for healing.
Perhaps in these descriptions you have found something familiar – a recollection of a time when you were tended to lovingly. Or the memory of a time when you felt you had gone astray, and longed to hear a familiar voice calling you back to guide you home. Or maybe you’re thinking of the difficulty of hearing the shepherd’s voice over the cacophony of daily life. I’m sure there’s no shortage of events or memories that are stirred up by these images.
We live in a world where lots of voices demand our attention. Sometimes they come to us one at a time, but other times they come all at once. Somehow, sometime, somewhere in our being we must make the decision that seeking God’s presence is a vital part of our lives. We are called to trust that in seeking God, we draw closer to God; that in drawing closer to God, God’s voice becomes clearer to us. We are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand – oh, that today you would listen to his voice!
You don’t need to think of yourself as a sheep to know that there will not always be green pastures to lie down, for everyone must at one time or another walk through the valleys of terrifying deep shadows. The bitterness of loneliness or fear or anxiety will threaten to undo us. But regardless, whether in green pastures or by still waters or deep in the very valley of death itself, God is there because Jesus has been there, leading us like the shepherd he describes.
Jesus is the shepherd — and more. He is the Lamb who sits upon the throne, and shelters us with his presence. The Lamb in the midst of the throne is our shepherd, and will guide us to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.