ithin the lectionary, the fourth Sunday in Eastertide is Good Shepherd Sunday. At this time every year we get to read about Jesus as the Good Shepherd. There are different verses that are used but all in all a general theme. Always these passages are accompanied by Psalm 23, the Lord is my shepherd.
The gospel verse that we just heard is one of those passages where shepherding is a dominant picture in the story. Yet this piece is part of a much larger story and I think it is important to keep the text in context. The story begins in chapter 9, after Jesus has been kicked out of the temple. He is walking with the disciples and they come across a blind man, a man who had been blind from birth. Most of you will know this story, and how the disciples ask who had sinned to make this man blind, himself or his parents? Jesus explains that God’s glory will be revealed through this man. Then he spits on the ground, and rubs the mud on the blind man’s eyes. Jesus sends him off to the pool of Siloam to wash, after which he can see. The ‘once blind’ man goes back to the temple, where the Pharisees ask him who did this? This is where it becomes a bit comical. The man says, I didn’t see who it was, some guy just rubbed mud in my eyes, by the time I washed it off he was gone. I couldn’t see him! Now I can see and I have no idea who it was. This very quickly moves into a rowdy argument with the Pharisees about who is even able to do such a thing. The man claims whoever did this must be from God; the Pharisees cannot agree with him, because it is the Sabbath, nor can they deny what has happened… so they kick the now sighted man out of the temple, and out he goes with a boot up his bum.
This is where Jesus comes back into the picture. He finds the man who has been healed, and asks him if he believes in the Son of Man. When the man answers, ‘I believe,’ Jesus begins to teach those gathered, offering them a picture to explain what had just happened. He begins to talk about the sheep and the sheep fold, saying that whoever tries to get in by another way is a thief and bandit. Jesus says ‘my sheep hear my voice and follow me,’ and explains that he is the good shepherd, not like the hired help who is only in it for the profit. For a good shepherd, it is a livelihood, a lifestyle, a vocation to protect, feed, care for, and live with the sheep. For the second time, Jesus tells the listening crowd that He is the Good Shepherd, the one who will take it as far as laying down his life on behalf of the sheep.
Now being called sheep is not really a compliment. I did some research and they are not the smartest of creatures. Sheep are timid and easily frightened. Fear prevents them from doing things that are good for them. They have a mob mentality, doing what every other sheep is doing. If one gets spooked and runs, the others will run, with not a one of them knowing why they are running; they just are. They follow the same trail, and can practically ruin the land because they will not go and find better grass, because it is what they know. The shepherd needs to guide them to different feeding ground. If left on their own, they fight and butt each other. When the shepherd shows up they stop behaving so badly towards each other. Mosquitoes, gnats, flies and things head straight for their nose, and if these pests get inside and lay eggs it can lead to all kinds of health problems, blindness, swelling and irritation. A sheep will beat its head against a tree trying to get these bugs out, or shake its heads for hours on end. If the shepherd sees this happening, he puts oil on the nose to prevent the flies from going in there. They have to have a good water supply, they are too frightened to drink from fast flowing streams and so will die of thirst rather than take the risk of flowing water. If a sheep falls over onto its back – called being ‘cast down’ – it will not be able to get up, and can actually die. The shepherd has to rub the legs of the sheep and speak gently to it so that it calms down and the circulation gets back into its legs and then it can be turned over. A sheep will not lie down unless it is fed, watered, is at peace with the rest of the flock and feels safe with the shepherd whose voice it knows. If those things are not taken care of, the sheep will continue walking until they drop. The life expectancy of a flock then, depends very much on the ability of the shepherd to look after them.
Now for the most of the time they are all living up on the hillside, but when the shepherd needed to come into the town, they would bring the sheep with them and take them into something that we might recognise as a day care facility. This would be a gated area where you could drop off the sheep while you went shopping. The doorkeeper would open the gate to let the sheep in, and then you would collect your sheep when you were ready to head back out to the hills. For them to be collected successfully they would need to know the voice of the shepherd, otherwise some could be lost.
This was fascinating research, and apart from being fun to read, it really did translate so well into what we are like as people. Our culture runs on fear; our newspapers and TV are full of it. I got a call yesterday from CTV asking me what the Anglican Church is doing about the flu pandemic. They tried to get Jamie but he’s away, so they called me… and I sent them on to the Bishop. One sheep gets spooked so we all run. We forget how to treat people without a constant reminder, and we let annoying little things get up our nose and drive us crazy, sometimes to the point of self destruction. We are not alone in these sheepish traits. The Hebrew people longed to live with God, as sheep live with a shepherd, but their life was hard, and they were too afraid to keep believing that this Shepherd was leading them to green pastures, or that goodness and mercy would always follow them. So they frequently rushed down more promising paths toward more manageable gods, which always led them into unmanageable trouble and back to laments for the salvation of God. Then they would return to worship, where their story was told and retold.
If we were to choose not to live in fear, to actually believe that our shepherd is good, we might begin to live a little less like sheep and more like the people we were designed to be. We could look up from our little patch of grass and realise that we are part of a flock. With a living God loose in the world, we might start to look out for one another, as the shepherd looks out for us. When people believe that the future is not theirs to secure, but belongs in the keeping of a Good Shepherd then lives can be lived without fear, trusting in Jesus who says: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
It would seem to me that an abundant life for sheep doesn’t require anything more than to lie down, eat in green pastures, drink at still waters, and to be protected from large, hungry predators. An abundant life for us is a little more complicated. We need to know that we are loved, that we are worthwhile people, with purpose. The abundant life is not about things we may have, but about the loving, caring relationships we experience with others and especially with God. Jesus is the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. For John, Jesus’ death is the ultimate sign of God’s love for us. Jesus and the blind man acted out the story of the Shepherd and the sheep. The blind man had to follow the voice. Jesus, as the shepherd, cares for him; whatever the sin was, whoever the sin belonged to, it didn’t matter, Jesus took it. He took it at that moment and he took it forever. The ultimate display of love shown to all of humanity was the willingness to go to the cross. There Jesus laid down his life for his friends. God’s display of love shown for all humanity was the resurrection of Jesus. Something that was so unexpected, so powerful, so final that we can’t take it in. It is the story of the cross and resurrection that needs to be told and retold, so that we can stay close enough to the shepherd to hear his voice. Hearing that voice lets us know that we are cared for, provided for, protected as part of the flock, and loved. Keep your ears open.
In light of Helen’s reflections, you really should take a listen to a sample clip of Jenny Moore-Koslowsky’s song “Bound Up,” available here.