We have heard about the Good Shepherd so often that maybe we begin to lose the power of this image of Jesus. Throughout all of history, raising sheep has been a big business. It was a central part of economic life in the Middle East similar to the auto industry is in our culture today. People used sheep for food, clothing and religious sacrifice. The number of sheep a person possessed easily measured his wealth.
A herd of sheep could be huge. We imagine a herd of forty to fifty sheep with just one shepherd. In reality, herds back then could number in the thousands. Clearly, a good shepherd was highly valued because he could make or break the owner of the flock.
It seems like only after people had moved to the cities that they began to look back on the life of the shepherd as serene and romantic. Sitting in a meadow on a lazy summer afternoon surrounded by grazing sheep became the popular image. In reality, a good shepherd had to be constantly aware of his surroundings. He had to remain with the sheep in the cold of winter, the heat of summer and everything in between. He had to be on the watch at all times for predators and rustlers as well as other threats to the herd. He had to know the sheep well… which ones might need a gently prodding and which ones be need a more forceful prompting.
Shepherding was a dangerous, rugged business that required intelligence and wisdom. Good shepherds were hard to find.
In today’s gospel, Jesus says that he is the good shepherd and gives three characteristics of such a shepherd. First, a good shepherd cares so much for the flock that he is willing to risk his own life to protect them. Secondly, he knows each of the sheep well…by name. Lastly, he cares about all of them, even those who go astray. This morning, we can apply each of these to the Lord.
A good shepherd is willing lay down his life for his sheep. We’ve all had the experience of being disappointed by heroes and leaders in life.
Sooner or later, something is revealed that shows the person we had admired not to be all that he or she claimed to be. Jesus Christ is everything He claims to be. He showed his love by giving up His life for us. Each Sunday, the words…my body for you…my blood for you… come to us directly from the Last Supper to show us the extent of Jesus’ sacrifice for us.
The Lord says at the end of today’s gospel that nobody took his life from him. He himself gave it up voluntarily and willingly for us. His death was not something that happened to Him. Rather, it was something He did for us. Other leaders and people in life will disappoint. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for us.
Secondly, Jesus says that a good shepherd knows his sheep. To a stranger, all sheep look alike. A good shepherd knows the temperament of each and knows each one’s name. So often in life, we wear a mask in front of others. It might be the mask of self-assurance or holiness or success or confidence or whatever. But most times, there is a gap between what we allow people to see and what is the true case within. Jesus knows our inner person. That is the person He loves and for whom he died. That is the person he wants to fill with his grace. Jesus knows our true name in a way that nobody else ever will. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who knows his sheep.
Finally, a good shepherd gathers his scattered flock. A sheep that is missing is never far from his mind. In a world of so much fragmentation where businesses are devoted to creating and catering to micro markets, Jesus is a point around which we all can gather. His flock embraces all nationalities. His flock is a place every human being can call home.
If we wander away, the Lord sends instruments of his grace to bring us back. To those who have never belonged to his flock, the Lord sheds a light into their life to guide them to His flock. Every hour of every day in every part of the world the Lord is sending forth His grace to bring back the lost and to widen the embrace of His flock.
Jesus is indeed the Good Shepherd who gave his life for us, knows each of us by name and gathers the lost even as he brings new members into his flock.
Jesus has bound himself to his flock forever. Embrace the flock and the Good Shepherd will embrace you. The flock and the shepherd, the Lord and His church are one…forever…for good.