The Good Shepherd

The Good Shepherd  – John 10:7-15

by Steve Schantz

Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. 11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. 13 The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. 14 “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.

John 10:7-15

For movie buffs “The Good Shepherd” (2006) conjures up a stoic Matt Damon, in a befitting dark suit, starched white shirt and tie, playing the role of Edward Wilson, one of the founding members of what we now call the CIA. Point being that the bucolic pastoral setting of sheep and shepherd is unfamiliar turf to us as we recast the characters in scenes far from their pasture of origin.    With the exception of a live Vacation Bible School prop, most children (and adults) would only encounter sheep at a petting zoo.  Rather than a cute, white puffed, and overstuffed cartoon version from the Sunday school coloring book, real sheep are quite smelly and messy!  Instead of a blissful looking fluffy, lovely little sheep, it is usually dirty with spots of matted wool dotting its back.  And rather than those baby eyes looking up at you longingly for safety, a determined nose is prying your hand open to scarf down more feed before moving on to the next snack.  So a little bit of background on what makes sheep sheepish and a Shepherd Good can be helpful in gleaning from our text.

Many believe it’s a safe assumption that as Jesus shared this analogy he is walking near a shepherd and his flock.  I remember getting hold of a copy of A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 by Phillip Keller in the 70’s.  Keller’s fascinating knowledge of sheep and the challenges of shepherding remain timeless.

When pastors talk about the Good Shepherd, we often jump right into the challenges of shepherding buttressed by the details of how helpless sheep can be in caring for themselves.  From their cavalier choice of diet, (sometimes foraging on poisonous greens), to their occasional inability to right themselves after lying down for a nap, (known as becoming cast).  And then there’s the issue of being totally defenseless in the face of an enemy, of which they have many.  Dr. Bob Smith, retired professor of philosophy at Bethel College, once suggested that the existence of sheep was prima facie evidence against the theory of evolution because there is no way sheep could ever have survived!  In sheep, Scripture gives a match comparison from the animal kingdom that we sometimes resist and other times seek to emulate.

“It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.

Psalm 100:3

“All we like sheep have gone astray.”

Isaiah 53:6

And yet, some of my sheep prejudice began to fade after logging on to an animal husbandry website or two.  Yes, sheep are still grimier in real life than they appear in stained-glass windows or Children’s Bible lessons, but they also possess some traits we should admire.  You may already know this, but bear with me a bit.

First, we discover that sheep, unlike cows, refuse to be pushed around. While cows may respond to being pushed from behind, sheep much prefer to be led. A man who grew up on a Midwestern sheep farm reported to his preacher that sheep will not go anywhere that someone else does not go first. They insist by their behavior that their shepherd go ahead of them to demonstrate that the path or the pasture is safe. That’s sheep behavior we can ID with.  We all want someone who will show us the way, don’t we? We all want someone who will walk before us, reassuring us as we follow that everything will be OK. We all want someone who will demonstrate by example that we have nothing to fear on the road ahead, even when we can’t see around the next curve in that road.

Our desire to be led and told what to do can also be a big challenge in this time of COVID-19. As the leadership of your congregation make difficult decisions about our communal life together, a detailed guaranteed forecast of exactly how the next six to twelve to eighteen months will play out is not given to us.  Rather, all of us are having to make the best decisions we can with the information we have at the time.  But as we follow the thread of Jesus imagery, we see that we are not at all leaderless during this challenge. But back to the sheep…

The second thing we discover is that not only do sheep prefer to be led by their shepherd, but they also grow very connected with their leader, as well.  While the shepherd can walk through his sleeping flock without one of them raising a head in alarm, a stranger can’t take a step into their sheepfold without pandemonium breaking out.  (Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Voice of the Shepherd,” The Preaching Life). They instinctively know the difference between their good shepherd and someone who could be intent on harm. Something within the sheep knows when an intruder invades, and in response, they refuse to follow. They refuse to follow the voice of the one who does not know them. Instead, the sheep will all scatter about.

“Sheep seem to consider the shepherd to be not just their leader but a part of their sheep family… The shepherd and the sheep even develop a language of their own. Like a parent of a newborn child, the attentive shepherd learns to recognize the difference between a bleat of pain and a bleat of pleasure”

Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life

I share below a particularly helpful excerpt from an article about the relationship between Shepherd and Sheep written by a modern day Shepherd.

Tend to the Flock, but care for the individual – “Shepherds, like the sheep themselves, learn quickly that the path to success depends on tending to the flock but caring for the individual. Providing clean water, ample forage and shelter to an entire flock is essential to maintaining the health of the flock. But the success of a shepherd or shepherdess is in the compassion they have for each individual. This means being able to identify a sick or injured sheep or lamb within a flock of hundreds or thousands of sheep. Assisting with the birth of a lamb when needed, caring for a lamb orphaned by its mother, providing the expectant mother with enhanced nutrition or weaning a lamb in a compassionate manner are all part of that job. The more concern the shepherd has for the individuals who are in need of health care, supplemental food assistance or individual attention, the healthier the flock and the more profitable the whole operation is. (This lesson applies to more than a flock of sheep.)”

Modern Farmer, Ten Things I Learned From Lambs, Craig Rogers, Border Springs Farm, Patrick Springs, VA

In capturing the heart of Jesus’ words through the whole of John chapter 10, we are met by an extreme kind of love and connection that this Shepherd has for and with his sheep. Shepherding in first century Palestine was a highly personal occupation and a 24/7 commitment.  There was no sharper image of a tragedy for the ancient mind than that of sheep without a shepherd.

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

Matthew 9:36

For me, the clincher, the part of Jesus’ teaching here that urges us to throw our hearts and arms wide open to being compared to a sheep, comes from the very opening of John chapter 10.  While the neediness of any sheep is a fact of nature, the love of this shepherd reaches beyond the created to the heart of our creator. In verse 3,  “The shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.” What a powerful image. The shepherd walks into the midst of the flock, knows each sheep by name, calls it out, walks ahead, and waits for each one of them to follow.   Here we are given an intimate familiarity.  As a young child I remember my Grandfather speaking gently to each of his Holstein dairy cows during the early morning milking time.  It was a hands on job, and they trusted his hands and his voice.  The Shepherds of Palestine often named their sheep according to their characteristics, even as we might do with a family pet to this day.  “Here Fluffy, come on Straggly, follow me Runny Nose, Dinner time Big Ears…”  While it’s always possible that sheep can be beckoned with “come Dasher, come Donner, come Prancer and Vixen”, I highly doubt it happened in A.D. 30. 

This entire section of pastoral imagery continuing through verse 18, embedded within a time of conflict in Jesus’ ministry, reminds us of our intimacy with God through every time of conflict in our own lives. Our being fully known by God, that we’ve been given in Jesus our Good Shepherd. Through his picture of the good shepherd and the canny, intuitive sheep, Jesus is preaching to us that we can trust and build our foundation upon the promise that the Great Mystery, the Ground of All Being, the One who is over and above, all-powerful, everywhere present, incomprehensible and undefinable, that that God knows each of us by our name. “Jesus knows us just as well as he knows his Father – with intimate knowledge.  This is one of the most staggering suggestions to be found anywhere in Scripture.”  (Preaching the Word- John, That You May Believe, R. Kent Hughes, p. 269)

“I am the good shepherd,” Jesus claims in these verses. The one who knows you by name. The one who calls you and leads you out. The one who created you and abides within you and will not forsake you, especially not in these days of chaos and uncertainty and loneliness. I am the good shepherd, Jesus says, the one who lays down his own life for the sheep.  Take comfort that even if we don’t feel very wise at times, Jesus promises us we will recognize the Shepherd’s voice as he calls and, if we will listen to the Spirit that dwells within us, we will not follow a stranger. May we find courage in the promise that Jesus goes ahead of us always and that he holds our life now and forever.