In these reflections from May 2017, Lynda Taylor helps us explore what the various images in the Bible that revolve around shepherds and sheep can mean for us today, and particularly for when we are going through the darkest times of our lives.
You’ll know me well enough by now to know that I like to use a visual aid when I’m sharing my reflections so I’ve brought along a visual aid that goes with our gospel reading today. I’m sure you’ll recognise it. It’s a genuine shepherd’s crook. I bought it a couple of years ago at the Great Gransden Country Fair from a man who makes all sorts of different types of staffs for working or walking in the countryside, as well as crooks for shepherds.
In our passage today from John’s gospel we hear Jesus speaking of the business of being a shepherd and what is involved in looking after sheep. The business of shepherding would have been quite familiar to Jesus’ listeners. It was a common occupation during Jesus’ day despite the fact that being a shepherd was not a particularly desirable or well-regarded profession since it involved living out in the hills with the flock, even sleeping with them to keep watch over them and protect them from predators. So it was a dirty, antisocial, and sometimes dangerous occupation.
But in this passage, Jesus is not just drawing on his listeners’ familiarity with the person and work of a shepherd in first-century Palestine. Jesus is drawing on some powerful images and metaphors that were well-established in the Psalms and in the prophetic literature of the Old Testament, writers such as Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. These well-known images or metaphors revolved around sheep, sheepfolds and shepherds. The example from the OT that we’re probably most familiar with is the one we’re had as our first reading today – Psalm 23.
First and foremost, the biblical picture of the shepherd with his sheep is frequently used to describe God’s care and leading of his people, those who recognise his voice, follow him and entrust themselves to his care. But the shepherd and his sheep image is also a picture that refers to the king and his people, to a leader who is discerning and trustworthy so that people are willing to follow his or her lead and entrust themselves to his or her care. In today’s world we don’t think of rulers and leaders in quite that way, but in the Bible the ideal king or leader is pictured as a shepherd perhaps modelled on the shepherd boy David, who became a king after God’s own heart. In a world where people knew about and understood the intimate contact and trust between a shepherd and his sheep, this was their preferred way of talking about kingship. As an aside, perhaps this is a criterion we can bear in mind as we approach a general election. Does God call us to pray for and support those candidates and parties who know their constituents and neighbourhoods well, and who have a deep concern for their wellbeing, rather than for a particular political ideology or rhetoric?
Even in our day a shepherd in the Middle East will go into a crowded sheepfold and call out his own sheep one by one, naming them. They will recognise his voice and come to him. The shepherd, after all, spends most hours of most days in their company. He knows their individual characters, markings, likes and dislikes. What’s more, they know him. They know his voice. Someone else can come to the sheepfold and they won’t go near him, even if he calls the right names. In the clamour of a sheepfold where multiple flocks may be co-located for safety overnight, sheep are listening for the one voice that matters, the voice they trust. When they hear it, they won’t need a sheepdog to keep them in order. The shepherd will walk in front of them with his staff, calling them – and they will follow. It doesn’t just happen in the Middle East. I recently saw a Youtube video of a European hill farmer calling through to the mist to his scattered sheep across the hillside and valley; after a few moments ghostly shapes started appearing out of the mist from all directions and his sheep came running towards him; they knew his voice and they knew he would have food for them. They trusted him and they were not disappointed.
In the gospel passage Jesus is challenging his listeners to consider and recognise who it is that is standing before them. In the previous chapter John tells us how Jesus attacked those, especially the Pharisees, who failed to recognise the power of God at work in Jesus as he healed a man born blind. Jesus used that debate about physical sight and blindness to make a powerful point about spiritual sight and blindness among those who were blind to the signs of God’s Kingdom at work in their midst.
In this further discussion Jesus uses the familiar images of sheep and shepherding to introduce another theological reflection for his listeners in an attempt to open their spiritual eyes to the reality of God’s kingdom and how Jesus himself is directly implicated in it. Clearly, his audience find it all a bit puzzling: John tells us they didn’t understand the first time so Jesus has to say it all again! Perhaps his listeners find it all a bit puzzling because Jesus seems to be using two different but related images.
He talks first about the difference between true shepherds and false ones, probably referring to the various leaders who had emerged during his lifetime. Perhaps he had in mind the revolutionary leaders, like the Zealots, who were eager to lead Israel into confrontation with the occupying imperial powers. Or perhaps the house of Herod, keen to submit to Rome as long as they could keep their power and wealth. Jesus is posing the question: how will you recognise God’s true appointed king when he comes?
The answer is that you can tell the true king the same way you can tell the true shepherd. Anyone can call himself a leader; anyone can call followers. But the sign of a real king is the response that comes from the heart, when people hear his voice and, in live and trust, follow him, just as sheep recognise a true shepherd. And, of course, a little later Jesus will go on to describe himself as the good shepherd.
But Jesus then also refers to himself as the gate for the sheep. So what does this mean? In many Eastern sheepfolds, the shepherd lies down at night in the gateway, to stop the sheep getting out and the predators getting in. Here, Jesus seems to be pointing to the way in which the true and faithful shepherd keeps the sheep safe, and like God, watches over their going out and their coming in. The emphasis is on the safety, and the fulfilled life, of the sheep.
Both the images – the true shepherd and the gate for the sheep – challenge us, as well as his listeners, to think about what they mean to us personally. What are the voices in our lives that we pay attention to and whose lead do we follow? How do we recognise and respond to God’s voice in the midst of the clamouring voices of our age? Do we reject those voices that make false claims on our lives – image, materialism, success at the cost of others? Do we remind ourselves daily that we are each called by name into relationship with Jesus, called to follow, called to be fed, watered, protected and loved? And do we allow ourselves to be pastured and protected – through prayer, Bible-reading, meeting together and sharing Holy Communion – so that we and those who come across our paths flourish as God designed us to do?
As we close, let me share with you a few more shepherding images with the help of my crook. The crookmaker told me that each crook should be the right height to fit comfortably under the shepherd’s arm. It provides support as he stands in the field for long periods watching his flock. Remember, God is always with us watching over our comings and goings as Psalm 121 reminds us. The hook on the top, is important for several reasons. It’s useful for retrieving an errant sheep from a thicket or ledge, and if you’ve ever seen One Man and His Dog, you’ll have seen how the shepherd uses it to encourage his sheep into a pen and then closes the gate to keep them safe. Remember, Jesus’ death and resurrection mean that real safety, salvation, is located with a person rather than a place. And finally, and for me this is the most beautiful image. In the days when most lambing took place out on the hillside, often at night, the shepherd would hang a lantern from his crook to free his hands to assist the ewe during the birth of her lambs. Remember, God promises with us even in the darkest and most threatening times of our lives, and especially in the valley of the shadow of death.
Let us pray: Heavenly Father, thank you for all these pictures that help us to understand how Jesus is both the true shepherd-king of our lives and also the gateway to life in all its fullness. By your Holy Spirit, help us this week to live our lives listening attentively for your voice and trusting fully in your constant and gracious care and protection. Amen.