Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…”
Several years ago, Br. David Vryhof and I spent a week living with a shepherd in the Pacific northwest at this time of year, which is lambing season. One night we watched a ewe give birth to a 13-pound lamb. 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, incredibly adorable. But sheep are also a real mess. The ewe which had just given birth to a lamb licked the little lamb from head-to-toe. There’s some kind of innate bonding going on here between mother and lamb. Very moving 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 friend, the shepherd, chuckled and said, that’s just what they do. He knows his sheep, and his sheep know him. Quite.
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, and their wool as a staple for clothing and blankets. When Jesus identifies himself as a shepherd, he is speaking metaphorically; however he was teaching a culture which literally understood what he was saying figuratively. And he was saying two things.
For one, Jesus is calling us sheep, which is not exactly a compliment. Sheep require an enormous amount of care and work. (1) Sheep are prone to get lost, and to be lost. No bearings. Absolutely clueless. If the shepherd takes his eye off the sheep, sure enough, they will wander. They get stuck. They fall into ravines… which is why the shepherd’s rod and staff are absolutely essential. The staff – which is a shepherd’s crook – is used to hook either a back leg or the neck of a sheep. The shepherd will use this staff to rescue the sheep from rocks or thickets, or to catch a sheep in need of medical care. The rod, which is a straight pole, is used to prod the sheep along; the rod also serves as a long club to ward off predators. Except for head-butting or running away, sheep have no ability to defend themselves. It’s curious the psalmist doesn’t say, “your rod and your staff, “they protect me,” or “they rescue me.” That’s true, but the psalmist says something more: “your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” Why comfort? Because of the shepherd’s interventions. Necessary interventions – whether with sheep or with people – can be very difficult, sometimes quite painful, and yet ultimately for the good. “Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” Do you remember the etymology of the English word “comfort”? com + fortis; fortis is strong (like in “fortitude”). “Comfort”: with strength. The good shepherd will intervene to rescue you when you need it. It may be quite difficult for you, even painful, but it will not be bad. You will ultimately find comfort, find strength, in the good shepherd’s intervention with the rod or staff.
Sheep are so dependent on the shepherd, not only for protection but also for provision. Sheep do graze and move on to wherever the pasture seems greener. But if they are confined, or if their “greener” grass is gone, sheep will gnaw the pasture clean, right down to the roots and destroy the pasture. They are hopeless without help. And sheep have no ability to find water on their own. The shepherd must lead them to water, to “still water,” as we just prayed in Psalm 23. If the water is not still, they will not drink. If sheep are fearful or hungry or thirsty, they will not rest, they refuse to lie down. For sheep to lie down in a green pasture, “they shall not be in want” or otherwise they remain standing and bleating. (2) The shepherd normally leads his flock of sheep, that is, if the sheep know the shepherd and have been trained to follow the shepherd. However 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.” (3)
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.” (4) 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. (5) 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.” (6)
And so for Jesus to use these “loaded” images, both about sheep and shepherds, he is making a statement about identity. He identifies himself with this necessary and yet inglorious profession of shepherds. And he’s also making a statement about us. We are 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. Jesus identifies 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. No sheep, no person is left out. At one point I asked our shepherd friend, “Why do you think the sheep trust you?” He said, undoubtedly they knew he provided for them and protected them. But it’s more than that, he said. He was convinced that the sheep think he is one of them. Isn’t that sweet?
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.” This is personal: “The Lord is my shepherd.” And then comes this very bold statement, “I shall not be in want.” The Hebrew verb – hāsar “to (not) want, to (not) lack” – is used here without any object. “I-shall-not-be-in-want.” Period. “I shall not be in want” is simply used in an absolute sense. You will be provided for… like a shepherd will 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. (7) You have every reason for hope that “goodness and mercy” shall follow you all the days of your life. (8) Pray your gratitude.
For others of you, you may have the experience just now of “walking through the valley of the shadow of death.” 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 may weep with those who weep. Pray your sorrow.
“A sheep found a hole in the fence.” This is a parable from Anthony de Mello. (9) “A sheep found a hole in the fence and crept through it. It wandered far and lost its way back. Then the sheep realized that it was being followed by a wolf. The sheep ran and ran, but the wolf kept chasing him, until the shepherd came and rescued the sheep and carried him lovingly back to the fold. In spite of everyone’s urgings to the contrary, the shepherd refused to nail up the hole in the fence.”
We are rescued and provided for by the shepherd. We will need that help almost continually. That is true. But there is more. The shepherd wants us. That’s called love. Sooner or later we will be convinced.
- Psalm 79:13 – “For we are your people and the sheep of your pasture; we will give you thanks for ever and show forth your praise from age to age.” See also Psalms 78:52; 95:7; 100:2; 119:176.
- Insight drawn from A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, by W. Phillip Keller.
- John 10:14.
- Insight drawn from Chapter XIV, “Despised Trades and Jewish Slaves,” in Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus, by Joachim Jeremias; p. 303.
- Jeremias, p. 305.
- Jeremias, p. 311.
- From Psalm 23:4.
- From Romans 12:15.
- “The Lost Sheep” in The Song of the Bird by Anthony de Mello, SJ.
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