In the interest of full disclosure, the only first-hand knowledge I have of sheep and shepherding comes from the three days I spent on a sheep farm in England. Beyond the fact sheep are able to jump over those stonewalls so many New Englanders find attractive, I didn’t learn much else. So in all honesty, as we celebrate Good Shepherd Sunday reciting the 23rd psalm and listening to Jesus declare himself to be the Good Shepherd, I offer this homily based on a lot of assumptions and what I have read about sheep and shepherding in the commentaries for this morning’s passages.
That said, the image of God as shepherd is as old, if not older, than the time of King David when the Book of Psalms came into being. The 23rd psalm, perhaps the most well known of the psalms and the most often requested psalm for funerals and in times of national distress, in its original King James version, somehow speaks to the soul of every human being. In my early years of ordained ministry, I discovered that when I recited this passage with the elderly, as soon as they heard the words, “ The Lord is my Shepherd” no matter how agitated they may have been, or lost in their world of dementia they may be, most immediately calmed down and began reciting these most familiar words of the English Bible.
However, the image of the shepherd is complex. Unlike our image of the well-scrubbed farm hand dressed in ancient tunic and headgear which we often conjure up while reading Saint Luke’s version of the Christmas story, the shepherd of Jesus’ day was not beloved. In fact, he was feared and hated. The ancient of Shepherds were nomadic in nature. They were the Romanian Gypsies of Europe or the illegal migrant farm hand of today. The shepherds were the lowliest and most marginalized members of Palestinian Society. The good people of Israel would do anything to avoid contact with them for fear of being robbed. Even Jesus attests to their perceived lack of trustworthiness in John’s gospel when he states, “ The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away-and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.” John 10:12
In this morning’s Gospel, John makes a distinction between the hired caretaker of the sheep and their owner. Jesus is not the farm hand, he is the owner, the good shepherd of ancient Israel. The Good Shepherd, like King David, of whom the psalmist speaks, and in whose Jesus claims to be as the Good Shepherd is the one; who lays down his life for his sheep . . . whose sheep knows and trusts his voice . . . who will leave the flock unattended to find the one who is lost.
This is whom Christ claims to be, a shepherd, a lowly farmer. . . not a great king surrounded by palace walls. Christ is leader and caretaker, protector and provider and we are his sheep.
Now this is where this is where I struggle with this image. I know we all have this wonderful image of white fluffy sheep floating in our minds right now thanks Beauty Rest mattresses and to all who exhibit their sheep at the 4H fairs. But have you ever seen what sheep look like before they are shorn. The last ones I saw grazing in the fields were kind of grey with their wool all matted down, with bits of leaves, sticks and other field debris stuck in their wool. I have also read that sheep are not considered to the brightest of farm animals. They tend to blindly follow. So I have often struggled with having to relate to the world as a sheep.
Unfortunate as this is, as the shepherd is to the sheep and vice versa, this is the metaphor Jesus uses to describe the relationship between he and us. Both images are humble in nature. And I believe this is the point Jesus is making. In Matthew 18, Jesus tells the disciples, “ truly I tell you, unless you change and become like a child, you will never enter the kingdom heaven. . . whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. ” It seems wherever we look, Jesus is constantly telling us to let go of our pride, to let go of our control and to let him lead the way. But unlike the snake oil salesmen of years ago, the television evangelists of yesterday, and even the politicians of today, Jesus doesn’t end his plea here, instead he encourages us to follow him as he reminds us over and over again, that he is the good shepherd, the humble leader, who:
Provides all that we need.
Makes us lie down in green pastures to rest.
Leads us besides still waters to drink
Who restores our souls by leading us in the paths of righteousness
It is Jesus who walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death.
Whose rod and staff protect and comfort us.
And it is Jesus who prepares a table so we can eat in the presence of our enemies.
It is the voice of Jesus, the voice of the Good Shepherd that God has programmed each of us to hear and has called us to listen for. For when we follow the voice of Christ we are never led astray, instead we are led onto the path of righteousness for His name’s sake.