"I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep" (John 10:11)
There is a common expression used mostly, I believe, by Project Managers and similar types whose job it is to organise a disparate bunch of people to work to a common purpose. When struggling to get everybody to agree to their objectives, to turn up to a workshop, or to get a computer programmer to write some code without finding the urge to reboot their computer, reinstall the operating system, go and get a cup of tea or decide to have a quick bash at producing a program that will derive the meaning of life from first principles. It is, they say, like herding cats.
The implication is that cats are random, wilful, independent creatures - whereas sheep, by comparison, are docile, easily herded, obedient, predictable. Is that what Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is meant to indicate? That we're woolly-headed, docile creatures that go where we're led?
But sheep aren't as sheeplike, or even sheepish, as they're painted. There's the idea in Isaiah that "we all, like sheep, have gone astray" - wandered around, confused or headstrong, heading off from the Shepherd and safety. The idea of the shepherd who goes out to get the one sheep - leaving 99 behind - that suggests herding sheep isn't so easy.
And then there are these critters, finding ways over cattle grids:
Then there were the sheep that learned to roll over cattle grids.
Or this one being rescued from a fence then falling down the hill.
Or the sheep that climbed on a roof, then fell off.....
In fact, I'm starting to think the whole "sheep" analogy is not so bad. That's what humans are like. We put ourselves at risk by being "clever" and end up lost. We choose our own way of doing things. We pay no attention to our environment, just worrying about the thing right in front of our noses - and then we panic.
Jesus's comparison is between a shepherd, and a hired hand. Why does the hired hand run away from the wolf? Well, the hired hand's life is worth more than the sheep's.
Why does the shepherd not run away? Because the sheep are the shepherd's life. He is defined, as much as they are, by their relationship. He can't run away. He is their shepherd. Even if that means laying his life down for them.
Today in the lowlands of England, the shepherd's not so bad. I've seen shepherds near Towcester rounding up sheep with quad-bikes. The land is - mostly - gentle and the weather is - mostly - mild. And there are no wolves. But up in the highlands, the story isn't so gentle. As we come to the end of the lambing season the Dales and Fells are still at risk of snow. The inter-dependence of the shepherd and the sheep is immense. The shepherd's living is dependent on the sheep - and the lives themselves of the lambing ewes are often reliant on the skill of the shepherd. The winter and spring can be bitter, the weather treacherous, dangerous for the humans and the sheep.
Jesus says to us, there's danger in this world. There's physical dangers, sure - the danger, if you are a Christian in the wrong place, of death at the hands of those who hate the Cross. But the one we follow faced those dangers himself - and laid down his life for the sheep. There are worse dangers, too. The danger that we turn from God. The idea that we can be dependent on ourselves. That individual sheep strike out on their own. That's another thing about sheep. The smart ones, that live in Cumbria, they are "hefted". They know their own patch of land - they know their homes and they stick there. Stupid, lowland sheep - if one finds an exciting new thing, a gap in a hedge or a gate left open, they can all wander off. Just a view of what looks like greener grass across the other road, and given the chance, they're all off. Next thing you know there are sheep all over the road.
The dangers if we wander away are far greater than mere physical pain, mockery or even death. Because in the world of Jesus' parables, if you aren't sticking by the shepherd - if you strike out on your own - you're lost. And if, when the shepherd comes looking for you, you're determined to stay lost, you'll get away in the end. Your choice.
But the rewards for staying by the shepherd are far greater than human reward. The Good Shepherd tells us that he'll bring us into a place where we will be safe forever. He knows that we don't need to fear the wolf that will destroy - because he's faced that wolf. In dying, and descending to hell, he's fought that wolf. In rising to new life, he's killed it. Death is now a short-term pain - as Paul says in Romans 8: "For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed to us. For the creation is eagerly awaiting the revelation of God’s children."
|Image from Christianity Today|
When we have passed through death, we'll know the Good Shepherd as that one who died for us, and for all the others. We'll share his love with him, and one another, in a way that we grasp at now - but can never achieve. We'll know that he has brought us, and all the other scattered flocks that are his, home - back to a place which we, like a hefted sheep, will recognise as home. We'll give him glory and we'll be his flock. Forever.