Jesus referred to himself as the Good Shepherd. “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.” (John 10:14). At the time, and in the place that Jesus spoke these words, sheep and shepherds were commonplace. Remember, it was shepherds that had come and knelt at his manger when he was born. In our culture, sheep and shepherds seem to be from another time. Other than petting zoos, most of us have never touched a sheep and are unfamiliar with both sheep and shepherds. Jesus’ metaphor about himself is somewhat lost on us.
Sheep have a reputation of being stupid and mindless followers, but this is not the case. Nowhere in the Bible are sheep referred to as being stupid. In truth, humans and sheep share many characteristics. Sheep are grazers and afterward spend hours ‘chewing the cud’ in order to be able to digest it. This is a relaxing activity and so sheep can have a rather ‘vague’ look about them, making them appear stupid. Humans too can look very unfocused when they are totally relaxed. Just like the sheep, time set aside for ‘refreshment’ is necessary for our well being. Sheep are social creatures and are not happy unless they are in a group of 4, 5 or more. Humans too are social creatures and do not thrive in isolation. Sheep tend to be followers and a strong individual in the flock can sway the rest. Sound familiar? Sheep can get distracted easily and wander off. This too is not uncommon for humans. Sheep are loyal and will stay with the shepherd, seeking the strength and protection of the one sworn to protect them and committed to the good of all. This loyalty is within us as well and shines forth when we are at our best.
In Jesus’ time a shepherd spent almost all his time with the sheep. He watched over them day and night, sleeping across the door of their pen to be ready if danger threatened. Sheep would get lost when they were distracted and wander off, and the shepherd would search for a lost sheep in rough terrain and all kinds of weather. The shepherd would put himself between harm and the sheep (wolves, both real and metaphorical, can be deadly). He led them to nourishing pastures and clear water. The sheep knew the shepherd, just as the shepherd knew the sheep. If sheep herds intermingled, the sheep would recognize the voice of the shepherd and come to him. The unfamiliar voice and form of a thief would cause consternation among them. The shepherd traditionally had names for the sheep, often reflective of some unique characteristic of each individual sheep. The love between sheep and shepherd was deep.
As a sheep of Christ’s flock, the image of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is comforting. The Good Shepherd knows each of us by name, loves us deeply and offers strength, comfort and metaphorical ‘green pastures and still waters’. In order to recognize the voice of our shepherd, we need to spend time with the shepherd in conversation, which we call prayer. We need to gather with others of the flock to be strengthened, comforted and celebrate God’s gifts to us. The Good Shepherd calls. Are we listening?