by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“My sheep hear my voice; I know them; and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.” John 10, 27-30
While we are all familiar with the metaphor of Jesus as shepherd and ourselves as his sheep, it is not necessarily a metaphor that sits comfortably with us. After all, sheep are not regarded as the smartest of animals. They easily wander off and are brought into line by dogs snapping at their heels. They have to be led by the nose or pulled into line by the shepherd’s deft use of his crook. Most of us resent being pulled into line or being led by the nose. Yet in today’s gospel-reading, John presents Jesus attributing to himself the metaphor of shepherd. Moreover, it is a metaphor that occurs repeatedly in the Bible. As early as the Book of Genesis, Joseph, in asking God to bless his two sons, was presented as giving praise to God “who has been my shepherd from my birth to this day” (Genesis 48, 15). Psalm 78 refers to God’s shepherding the Israelites as they wandered through the desert: “But his people he led forth like sheep and guided them like a herd in the desert” (Psalm 78, 53). In his Gospel, John makes multiple references to Jesus as both shepherd and sacrificial lamb. Moreover, in an extended metaphor, Ezekiel contrasts God’s faithful caring with so-called shepherd leaders who abandoned their sheep in times of threat and danger: “Thus says the Lord God: ‘Woe to the shepherds of Israel who have been pasturing themselves! Should not shepherds, rather, pasture sheep? You have fed of their milk, worn their wool, and slaughtered the fatlings, but the sheep you have not pastured…You did not bring back the strayed nor seek the lost, but you lorded it over them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered for lack of a shepherd, and became food for all the wild beasts’ “ (Ezekiel 34, 2-5).
A lot of the language in the Bible consists of image, symbol and metaphor. It impacts on us much like the way in which art and music, poetry and ballet touch us. We would do well to allow ourselves to soak it up rather than try to engage with it via intellectual analysis. I suggest that there is value in calling to mind that, even today, shepherds in Palestine tend only about ten or a dozen sheep. They keep sheep principally for milk and wool, sit with them all day long and, if the weather is really cold, they shelter them in the family home at night. They can distinguish each sheep from the others and almost know them by name. They are the kinds of shepherds and flocks with which Jesus would have been familiar. That’s the sort of image and metaphor that Scripture writers apply to Jesus, and it’s that which we would do well to allow to work on us.
The quality which epitomises Jesus the good shepherd is the care he extends to every member of his flock, without exception, without favour. That care he most clearly demonstrated in his becoming one with us, in the fullness of our humanity. The incarnation means that, instead of leaving us to ourselves, he embraced our flesh and grew into it; in that same flesh he encountered temptation as we do; in flesh like ours, he died in an act of love of the kind that humanity has not seen either before him or since. That act of love extended not only to sheep like us who have tried to follow him, but to every single one who has wandered away from him. Moreover, he doesn’t beat back into place any who wander. Instead, he lays them on his shoulders and brings them to be at home with him.
This same Shepherd knows just how difficult it is for us to make our way along life’s journey as women and men of flesh and blood, of passion and spirit, of intellect, spirit and free will. No matter how we wander and roam, this Shepherd goes out to track us down, cradle us in his arms and bring us safely home on his shoulders. It’s this image of our Shepherd that Biblical writers have woven throughout the Scriptures.
Written into this extended metaphor is an invitation to us to open ourselves to his care and, in our turn, to care for others as he cares for us. Our influence as shepherds will be effective only to the extent that we resemble him, reaching out in care, compassion and love to those crying out for attention. But this is not as easy or as simple as it sounds. To appreciate the full significance of today’s gospel-reading, it is important, yet again, to look at context. Immediately before referring to those who listen to him as his sheep and, therefore, dear to his Father, Jesus was being badgered by his critics to openly declare whether or not he was the Messiah: “How long are you going to keep us in suspense? If you really are the Messiah, tell us so in plain words” (John 10, 24). At the very end of the section chosen for today’s gospel-reading, Jesus declared that, because he was involved in doing God’s will, “The Father and I are one” (John 10, 30). That was too much for the Jews badgering him, so they took up stones to kill him.
So, attempts to shepherd others in imitation of Jesus, will be bound to bring with them dangers to life and limb. While most of us know that we have been free of persecution on account of the faith we profess, we don’t have to look far for evidence of our sisters and brothers being led like lambs to the slaughter. They, too, are dear to the Good Shepherd as they are devoured by engines of injustice, brutality and war. We have seen them and their children go to their deaths on the waters of the Mediterranean in their efforts to find refuge, asylum and welcome. We are seeing similar brutality repeated in the Ukraine and in the brutality of Boko Haram in Nigeria. We pray that the Good Shepherd and the God with whom he identified will somehow bring an end to such violence. In so praying, we may need to ask ourselves if our actions and protests are as fervent as our prayers.
On this Fourth Sunday of Easter, as we gather for and participate in worship, as we reflect on Jesus as shepherd and as ourselves as dear to him, we will very likely sing a version of Psalm, 23 ‘The Lord is my shepherd…” probably the most memorised text of the entire Bible, after the Lord’s Prayer. Psalm 23 initially looks like an idyllic, pastoral prayer of trust and confidence in God as shepherd. But then comes mention of valleys filled with darkness and the shadows of death. The “sheep” in the psalm trust in God’s providence, but still have eyes wide open to the dangers that they risk as they travel the way of justice and righteousness. Not as trauma-free as we like to think!
Finally, it is worth noting, that as Jesus engaged with the Jews who were badgering him, he was not just explaining his actions, but, at the same time, challenging their approach to leading their people. Their leadership style was directed at bringing benefit to themselves rather than to those they claimed to lead. In modelling a different way of leading and loving, Jesus was challenging them to imagine their lives revolving around something different from that to which they had grown accustomed. Perhaps there’s a similar challenge for us! He did not promise life free of pain, struggle and challenge, but rather his abiding presence through all that kind of experience. That’s something to fill us with hope and trust.