Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…”
A week ago, Br. David Vryhof and I had the pleasure of being guests of a friend of our community, a shepherd who lives on an island off the coast of Washington state. It is now lambing season, and one night we watched a ewe give birth to a 13-pound lamb. And then, in a matter of minutes – we counted 8 minutes – the newborn lamb was standing up on all fours and had begun to nurse. Absolutely miraculous!
The ewes are very protective of their newborns. They are likely to head-butt another ewe or human being who comes too close. And yet they freely allowed the shepherd to wander among the newborns, even to pick up the lambs and carry them off for a quick health check-up. Why no fight or fright in the mother-ewes, we asked the shepherd? Because the shepherd knows the sheep, and the sheep know their shepherd. They know his presence; they know his voice.
Jesus obviously knew something about shepherds and sheep. He grew up in a culture which lived much closer to the ground than we, here, do. Sheepherding abounded in first-century Palestine: sheep being a source of food, a necessity for Temple sacrifice, their wool, a staple for clothing and blankets. When Jesus identifies himself as a shepherd, he is, of course, speaking metaphorically; however he was speaking to a culture who knew literally what Jesus was saying figuratively. And he is saying two things.
For one, Jesus is calling us sheep.i Now having just said that my brother David and I found these sheep and newborn lambs so adorable, I can also say that sheep require an enormous amount of care and work. In the daytime we watched the shepherd lead the sheep out from enclosure into pastureland. We saw firsthand what it takes to demarcate, and cultivate, and protect green pastures. It takes a lot of work. Because sheep are timid and rather defenseless, they flock together. If they are fearful or hungry or thirsty, they refuse to lie down. For sheep to lie down in a green pasture, you know “they shall not be in want.” ii
The flock of newborn lambs, so carefree, would periodically take off in a race, running up and down the pasture for the sheer joy and celebration of just being alive. And yet there was real danger of which the lambs and sheep were mostly oblivious. The shepherd knew of predators, on both ground and air, in search of easy prey. One evening we watched the shepherd rescue a ewe and its new lamb from a team of eagles preparing for an attack.
We also saw how sheep are prone to get lost, and to be lost. No bearings. If the shepherd takes an eye off the sheep, sure enough, they will wander. And except for head-butting or running, they have almost no ability to defend themselves. They get stuck. They get caught in brambles. This is why the shepherd’s rod and staff are absolutely essential. The staff – a shepherd’s crook – is indispensible. The crook is used to hook either the back leg or the neck of the sheep. The shepherd will use this staff to rescue the sheep from rocks or thickets, or to catch a sheep in need of medical assistance. The rod, a straight pole, is used to push the sheep along; it also serves as a long club to ward off predators.
The sheep are quite adorable, and yet they are so dependent on the shepherd for protection and provision. Sheep do graze and move on to wherever the pasture seems greener. If confined, or if their “greener” grass is gone, sheep will pick the pasture clean, right down to the stems. Most of the time they have to be led to water – to “still water,” as we just prayed in Psalm 23 – because they cannot find water on their own, and if it is not still, they will not drink. The shepherd normally leads his flock of sheep, if the sheep know and have been trained to follow the shepherd, especially if the sheep are being led into unfamiliar surroundings. Sometimes the shepherd will drive the flock, pushing from behind, if the sheep are already familiar with where they are going. All of which is why Jesus calls himself a good shepherd: “I know my own and my own know me.”iii
Sheep also get dirty and seem quite happy about it. We saw a ewe who had just given birth to a lamb lick the little lamb from head-to-toe. There’s some kind of innate bonding going on here between mother and lamb. Very touching to see. The lamb is also being cleansed from the birthing fluids that completely cover its fleece. No sooner we had a clean lamb, than the little newborn rolled and rolled in the mud, “happy as a lamb,” as they say, and now completely filthy. Our good shepherd-friend just chuckled and said, that’s just what they do. He knows his sheep, and his sheep know him. Quite.
Now there’s a second point to be drawn from Jesus’ calling himself the good shepherd, because shepherds were not a reputable lot. In Jesus’ day, there was a whole series of professions and trades which were suspect and degrading, and not respected socially.”iv Shepherds were reputed to be among the worst. Shepherds were continually being accused of being dishonest and thieving. Shepherds had a reputation for leading their flocks onto other people’s land and for stealing other people’s sheep.v In the Jewish Midrash, from a commentary on Psalm 23, we read, “There is no more disreputable occupation than that of a shepherd . . . whose pursuits are mean and inglorious.”vi
And so for Jesus to use these “loaded” images, both about sheep and shepherds, he is making a statement, a statement of identity about himself. He identifies himself with this necessary and yet inglorious profession of shepherds. And he’s also making a statement about us. Weare like sheep. It’s hardly a flattering picture, but it’s not without purpose. Jesus is pressing a point here, a theme which threads its way throughout the Gospels. That theme is compassion. Though we may be like sheep without a shepherd, God loves us, all of us. God loves us so much that God sends the Son, Jesus, who humbles himself, taking the form of a lowly servant, like a shepherd. Jesus makes a radical point that he has come lead us (who are like “lost sheep”) by loving us. And he presses the point by identifying himself with this image of the lowly shepherd. As a shepherd, Jesus identifies himself with the least and the last and the lost, we being among them, and he being among them. No sheep, no person is left out.
Jesus would have known Psalm 23. He would have known how that psalm begins and how it ends. Psalm 23 begins, “The Lord is my shepherd.” “The LORD is my shepherd.” “The Lord is my shepherd.” This is a personal testimony. This is not a communal creed.vii This is spoken by someone who personally knows God’s provision and protection amidst the changes and chances of their personal life. “The Lord is my shepherd.” And then comes this very bold statement, “I shall not be in want.” The Hebrew verb used here – hāsar “to (not) want, to (not) lack” – is used here without any object. “I-shall-not-be-in-want” is simply used in an absolute sense. You will be provided for… like a shepherd must provide totally for the sheep. And then, Psalm 23 ends with a picture that spans eternity: “Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”
For some of you, these images of Jesus, your shepherd, and you, a sheep, may evoke gratitude for the provision and protection that you have known in your lifetime. You have every reason for hope that “goodness and mercy” shall follow you all the days of your life. Pray your gratitude.
For others of you, you may have the experience just now of “walking through the valley of the shadow of death.”viii It may have to do with your health, your finances, your past or future, or perhaps because of someone whom you carry in your heart, someone you love who may be in real trouble. You weep with those who weep.ix Pray your sorrow.
Whatever your state as you hear these words of assurance from Jesus – a shepherd who knows his sheep (and that is you) – pray your trust in Jesus that he will provide for what he promises. You are as dependent and vulnerable as a sheep, and Jesus is your shepherd, a good shepherd, who knows you and loves you. And he is with you, now and until the end of times.
ii Insight drawn from A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, by W. Phillip Keller.
vJeremias, p. 305.
viJeremias, p. 311.
viiInterpreting the Psalms, by Patrick D. Miller; p. 113f.
viii From Psalm 23:4.
ix From Romans 12:15.
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