Love, by definition, is to accept the other where she's at, and to be willing to help her move from there, if and when she wants to move. Incarnation is the story of God coming to us where we're at. God could have loved us from a distance, but he chose not to do things that way. He chose to come among us, to be one of us and one with us, and to move with us to where he would wish to lead us. It never was, and it never is his policy to drive or compel us into anything. This leading is seen in everything he did, including his teaching. He spoke of farmers, of fishermen, of shepherds, of everyday things, to which they could all relate. He began with what they knew, and he brought them from that to something he wanted them to know. Some of his most beautiful and his most simple teachings are based on the role of a shepherd and his sheep, something with which his listeners would have been very familiar.
Let us go back to the Old Testament for a backdrop to all this imagery. God was constantly referring to the people as his sheep, and he himself was going to shepherd them. He condemns their leaders for leaving their people like sheep without a shepherd. The prophet Micah spoke of a vision he had in which 'I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains, like sheep without a shepherd'. I will quote briefly from chapter 34 of Ezekiel, and I would strongly recommend to anyone to read the whole chapter. It summarises the plight of God's people, and his concern for them. 'Prophesy against the shepherds, the leaders of Israel. Give them this message from the sovereign Lord: Destruction is certain for you shepherds who feed yourselves instead of your flocks. Shouldn't shepherds feed their sheep? ...So my sheep have been scattered without a shepherd. ...I myself will search and find my sheep. I will be like a shepherd looking for his scattered flock. I will find my sheep, and rescue them from all the places to which they were scattered...I will bring them back home...I myself will tend my sheep.... I will feed them justice.' Jeremiah speaks the following message from God: 'My people have been like lost sheep...They have lost their way, and cannot remember how to get back to the fold.' This theme is repeated again and again throughout the Old Testament. The Psalmist prays 'We, your people, the sheep of your flock...I wander about like a lost sheep.' Because the leaders or the shepherds failed to care for his people, the Lord said that he himself would shepherd them. It was to do that that Jesus came.
To understand Jesus' use of the shepherd theme, it would help enormously to have spent some time in the Holy Land. That of which Jesus spoke is in everyday evidence in that country, right down to the present day. Let me give some simple facts of what I personally witnessed during my few short visits to that country. On the way down to the Dead Sea, passing through what is really a desert, it is remarkable to see the shepherds with their flocks. One wonders what the sheep could possibly be eating, as, from the passing coach, all that can be seen is sand, and more sand. And yet they obviously can eke out enough wisps of grass to keep them alive. I cannot say what they do for water. What is remarkable is to watch the shepherds. It is a sweltering hot day, it is the noonday sun, and the shepherd is just standing there in the midst of his flock. He has a shepherd's staff, and one or two dogs. He spends his full day like this, with his flock. At nighttime, he herds the sheep into a cave in the hillside, and he himself sleeps at the mouth of the cave for the night. A marauder will have to confront the shepherd to get to the sheep. Some of the caves are quite large, and several shepherds with their flocks can share the one cave. The following morning, one of the shepherds leaves the cave, calls out to his sheep, and his sheep, and those only, will separate themselves from the larger flock and follow him. A shepherd never drives his flock. He walks on ahead, and his sheep follow him. On several occasions, from the Mount of Tabor, for example, I watched the shepherds in the valley below. The shepherd just walked ahead, and the sheep followed in single file behind. There are frequent thunderstorms in the midst of the intense heat. It is said that, in the midst of the most violent storm, the sheep never look up at the sky, but towards the shepherd, as they instinctively gather around him.
It is common-sight to see a shepherd with a sheep or young lamb on his shoulders. The animal has become lame, and is no longer able to keep up with the flock. The shepherd will never abandon one of his sheep. Like a soldier fighting for his country, it is accepted that the shepherd must be willing to die for his sheep. Hence, the fact the shepherd sleeps at the mouth of the cave, or his readiness to repel the attacks of all wild and savage animals. Sometimes a sheep becomes tangled up in briars, and has to be freed. Occasionally, a sheep falls down a ravine, and the shepherd will do all within his power to rescue it. It is a very good example of where the rest of the flock are left, and the shepherd's full attention is devoted to the one in trouble.
I paint in that background to show what a powerful image Jesus uses when he calls himself the Good Shepherd. This image would be very familiar to his listeners. He uses every dimension of shepherding that was familiar to them. He knows his sheep, and they know him. He is ready to lay down his life for his sheep. If one gets lost, he will leave the ninety-nine, and look for the lost one till he has found it. He goes one step further than being a shepherd, when he says that he is the very entrance to the sheepfold. To become part of his flock, I have to hear his voice, to answer his call, and allow him lead me into the sheepfold. In another context, Jesus says that 'no one comes to the Father but through me'. There is no other way of entering the kingdom of God. There is a very important point here. 'I know mine, and mine know me. My sheep know my voice, and they come to me'. To someone like myself, all sheep look alike (except for the few black ones!), but a shepherd would be able to recognise his sheep anywhere, and they would clearly recognise his voice among the greatest babble. It has often amazed me, while driving through the mountains in the west of Ireland, and when I encountered sheep with their lambs on the road. To me, they are all mixed up, with no obvious groupings within the larger flock. And then a mother bleats a cry, and her lambs run straight to her, and they move off the road together. Christianity is about knowing Jesus, not just knowing about him. He speaks of those who, on the day of judgement, will claim that he walked their roads, and he spoke in their streets, and he will dismiss them with the words 'Depart from me; I do not know you.' This is the result of they not knowing him, because, he stresses that he knows his sheep, and they know him. He makes an interesting comparison between sheep and goats. Among the flocks of sheep there are usually many goats, and they seemingly mingle together with ease. There is one great difference, however, between sheep and goats, besides the obvious ones. The sheep will follow the shepherd anywhere, and at all times. The goats, however, do not have any sense of loyalty. If they are there in the midst of the flock, it is just because they are always ready to follow the crowd. A goatherd has to drive his goats, because they can never be led. That is what Jesus means when he uses the image of separating the sheep from the goats at the final judgement. The sheep will be those who follow Jesus willingly, and allow themselves to be led by him. The goats, on the other, are those who follow Jesus if and when it suits them, but they have no sense of loyalty or obligation in the following.
There is an Irish expression, which speaks of 'a conversion during a thunderstorm'. The person is terrified, and, in that moment of terror, will promise the Lord anything. This conversion lasts until the thunderstorm passes by!
Jesus speaks of a false prophet in terms of someone who poses as a shepherd, but whose real purpose is to steal the sheep, and to use them for his own benefit. Because of the witness dimension of Christian living, this treachery is all the more reprehensible. It is being a thief in shepherd's clothing. 'All others who came before me were thieves and robbers. .... The thief's purpose is to steal and destroy...A hired hand will run when he sees a wolf coming. He will leave the sheep because they are not his, and he isn't their shepherd. And so the wolf attacks them, and scatters the flock. The hired hand runs away because he is merely hired, and has no real concern for the sheep'. Jesus contrasts himself with such false shepherds. He is ready and willing to lay down his life for his sheep. He has come that they may have life, and have it to the full. He speaks of other sheep who are not in his fold at the moment. He announces his intention to seek out those sheep, so that there might be 'one fold and one shepherd'. Sometimes this is interpreted as meaning that there is only one true Church, or that there should only be one Church. I think this interpretation is wrong. If someone really wants to move to another Christian church, or to become a Christian in any of the churches, well and good.
There can be a triumphalism, however, about the merits of one church above the others, and that can show itself in nothing less than what could be called sheep stealing. I think it is sad if the concentration of one Christian church is in attracting members from another church. There are millions of sheep out there who have no shepherd, who do not belong to any fold, who have no knowledge of, or sense of belonging to God. There are so many sheep out there being ravaged by the wolves in the form of exploiters, expansionists, manipulators, and predators. These are all children of God, who are scattered and defenceless, like sheep without a shepherd. 'It is not the desire of your heavenly Father that any one of these should be lost. Pray, therefore, the Lord of the harvests to send shepherds to lead these people into my fold. I am the gate to that fold, and there is no other way of entering than through me.'
Jesus said that he was 'sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel'. He came to call sinners. The concern of the shepherd for the sheep who is lost is something that was very real to his listeners. He was condemned because he associated with sinners, and 'even ate with them.' To that condemnation he replied that it was for such as these that he had come. His story of the lost sheep is something that has always and ever highlighted the core of the Christian message. With a shepherd like Jesus, there is no reason for any of us to be lost. There are times when we can become entangled in the briars and brambles of life. We cannot pray, we cannot motivate ourselves, we cannot lift ourselves out of the depression or the oppression. This can be really difficult to handle. The way of the spiritually mature is very definite in such circumstances. They 'sit in the pain', as it were, and they wait for God. In other words, because of their experience of the Good Shepherd in their lives, they are totally convinced that if they have the patience to wait and trust, Jesus will come to them, and set them free. I am not saying they should not pray, no more than I'm suggesting that the sheep in such circumstances should not, or would not cry out for help. The cry for help is the prayer for such situations. The important thing, however, is to believe and trust that such a prayer will be heard and heeded. It is not possible for a human being to fall on her knees, cry out to God, and not be heard.
Jesus has many titles in Scripture. He is Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One, the Holy One of Israel, the Son of Man, etc. John the Baptist points to Jesus, and announces: 'Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sin of the world.' John's listeners would be quite familiar with the importance of a lamb being offered in sacrifice for the forgiveness of sin. This had always been part of the Hebrew tradition. The lamb is a symbol of innocence. There is nothing so innocent as to see young lambs running and gambolling in a field. The sight is always sure to evoke a thrill of excitement in every child, from one to one hundred. The idea of the innocent paying for the sins of the guilty is something that predated the coming of Jesus, and that found its completion in him. He is the lamb of sacrifice, and 'by his blood we are saved'. We are washed in the blood of the lamb for the forgiveness of sin. Once again, like the teaching about the shepherd and his flock, this would have a more real everyday significance for the people of Jesus' time than it does for us.
One final point about Jesus as Shepherd. When we follow him, he then appoints us as shepherds for others, with the instruction to 'feed my lambs; feed my sheep'. It is a beautiful symbol of how Jesus passes responsibility for his mission on to us. When we receive the Spirit, we take over the baton of the relay race, and, in the words of Paul 'let us run with determination the race that lies before us.' Towards the end of his life Paul says of himself 'I have done my best in the race; I have run the full distance, I have finished the race. And now the prize awaits me, the crown of righteousness that the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give me on that great day of his return.' When we receive the Power from on high, we become witnesses of gospel truths. We accept the responsibility of shepherds with gratitude and humility, because it is pure privilege, and pure choice on the part of God. We confirm the sheep in their worth and sacredness, and, in time, we train and entrust them to accept their own vocation of being shepherds for others. The responsibility and the message must be passed on. Each of us is nothing more than a channel, a conduit pipe, an instrument, and we must never fall into the trap of thinking of ourselves as generators, or as the source of any of this glorious and eternal privilege. Many a shepherd has himself/herself become lost in the mist, and some may even have led others into the mist with them.