There are two factors mitigating against our getting the most out of this idea of Jesus as The Good Shepherd.
Firstly, most of us have long since moved to city life and lost any connections we might have had with a rural past.
Secondly, the way sheep farming has been conducted in Australia from almost the beginning has created a whole lot of different ideas about the role of the shepherd.
Look for example at these words from our nearly most famous Australian song:
“Down came a jumbuck to drink at the billabong,
Up jumped the swagman and grabbed him with glee.
And he sang as he shoved that jumbuck in his tuckerbag:
You’ll come a waltzing Matilda with me.”
This most famous of Aussie folk songs underscores the yawning gulf between the value of one sheep in Jesus’ day and its value in Australia today.
In this folk song (a freedom song, actually!) one of the land-holder’s numerous sheep wanders down for a drink at the water hole. The tramp, maybe an unemployed shearer looking for work, who is camped there, sees a mobile meal, grabs the jumbuck, slaughters it, and shoves the meat in his food bag.
Flocks in those days (1895) numbered up to 50,000 sheep. One sheep out of so many was of little significance in the great scheme of things. One jumbuck was a minor matter, with no personal relationship with its owner. Value is purely monetary. The jumbuck, or sheep, has no sentimental value in this situation.
To understand Jesus when he calls himself the good shepherd, we have to put ourselves back in a very different rural setting, where shepherd and sheep have a close relationship.
Sheep were precious creatures, like valued pets. A flock of 100 was extra extra-large. Many flocks were no more than 10-20. The sheep knew their shepherd’s voice and followed him. He knew each by name. They might have had names like Spot, Blackie, Timid, Bossie, Wanderer, Whiteface, Horny and so on. By day and night the shepherd lived with them. He was always there for them. He would risk his life to save any one of them.
THE SHEEP AND THE SHEPHERD
I want to explore an idea or two about the implications of this for us as the Community of the Holy Cross in Hamersley.
Over My Dead Body
When the parable speaks of the shepherd lying in the doorway – being the gate – it seems to me that we are reminded that God’s care for us is absolute. It is a bit like Jesus saying to us that any threat to harm us will meet his challenge that it will be “over his dead body”.
I suppose the Easter story has demonstrated the validity of that. But it is a reminder that there is nothing we need to be afraid of. This is what Psalm 23 speaks to us most about, too.
The Good Stuff is Out There
Some people have thought the sheepfold represents the church. I don’t buy that. It is not an adequate image. The flock of Christ is much larger than any one sheepfold.
The fold was a place for short-term protection and hand-feeding. For most of the year the sheep stayed in the open with their shepherd. Let’s not forget this; the flock spent much more time out of the fold than in it. Out in the open at night the shepherd was still the door: Nothing could get at the flock except by getting past his defence. No sheep could leave the flock unless he permitted it.
You may notice in the Gospel Reading that there is more emphasis on going out than coming in. In fact, it is only when the shepherd allows them to leave the circle of safety and go out that they can find pasture for themselves. The fold is not the natural domain of the sheep. The world is. “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.”
You and I, the flock of Christ, may be hand fed by the Lord here, but there is also good pasture out there in the wide, dangerous world. There we are not handfed; we are supposed to feed ourselves. There is always ample pasture in the places where Christ leads us, if we will only take the opportunity as it arises.
Those sects, or groups like the Exclusive Brethren or the Amish, who cut themselves off from the world, are missing out on the wonderful pastures of God that are in the secular world. They wrongly think that the flock is only safe when it is gathered into the fold – or the church enclave.
It is not so. The whole world is God’s. The Good Shepherd is out there with us. In our working and our talking, in our relaxing and enjoying, among our friends or neighbours, in our great literature and art galleries, in our universities and Rotary or Lions Clubs, there is pasture for the Christian.
Out in the sunshine and rain, on smooth roads or rough, toiling or resting, climbing or descending, the shepherd has green pastures to show us if we only allow him to.
We will never find those pastures if we hide away in exclusive flocks and huddle in folds where we are hand-fed by prattling pastors who, in spite of their loud voices, are actually frightened of the world themselves.
The Risk-taking Good Shepherd wants us to take Risks
It is clear that God took a huge risk in the Incarnation – it might not have worked, Herod might have succeeded, who knows.
Jesus was also a risk-taker. He left home and associated with all the “wrong people”. He challenged the religious elite and their rules. He exposed the domination system of the Romans as ultimately powerless.
And I think he is challenging us to be risk-takers, too. Too often in the church we want to play it safe, but we should learn a lesson from history.
A century or so before Jesus was born a group of zealous men formed closed communities down near the Dead Sea at a place called Qumran. These shut themselves way from the world in a tight knit flock within a safe sheepfold. They cut themselves off from God’s wider world.
Although the discovery of a few of their scrolls made headlines in the twentieth century, their influence on the stream of history has been minimal. They played it safe and waited for God to do something dramatic. But tucked away in their monasteries by the Dead Sea, they remained unaware that in Galilee and Jerusalem God in fact was doing the most remarkable thing this world has known. The whole Jesus event seems to have passed them by.
The challenge for us in this parable is that trusting in Jesus no matter how scared we might be, we are called to discover what he is doing in the world around us and to take the risk of bringing God’s Kingdom in there and then.