By the Rev. Darren Miner
Finally, on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, we move on from the Day of Resurrection—only to transition to the topic of shepherds and sheep! In fact, today is commonly referred to as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” For me, this day brings to mind the many paintings and stained-glass windows that we have all seen of Jesus’ cradling a snow-white lamb in his arms or of his carrying a poor little stray on his shoulders. When I was a child, this Gospel story reminded me of the nursery rhyme “Mary had a little lamb. It’s fleece was white as snow.” Not living in the country, these images were all I knew about sheep until I was well into my 20s. Imagine my shock when I first saw real sheep up close and in person. They weren’t as white as snow at all! In fact, they were filthy and smelly beasts. And I am told that they aren’t terribly bright! So, why on earth does Jesus compare his followers to sheep and himself to a shepherd?
Well, Jesus doesn’t tell us in so many words, but I have some educated guesses. I suspect that Jesus compares his followers to sheep, not because of our stupidity or our lack of hygiene, but because, like sheep, we have a tendency to stray. Recall Isaiah 53, “All we like sheep have gone astray. We have turned every one to his own way.” Jesus, as our shepherd, is there to gather us back into the fold when we stray. And he will go before us to lead us to the green pastures and still waters mentioned in Psalm 23. Note that I said “he will go before us.” In the Middle East, the shepherd goes ahead of the flock, and the sheep are trained to recognize the shepherd’s voice and to follow his lead. Likewise, Jesus, as our shepherd, is one who has gone ahead of us, and we are expected to follow in his footsteps.
Moreover, like sheep, we are at times rather defenseless and vulnerable. And as we age, we find out more and more just how vulnerable we truly are! Not only do we have to deal with bodies and minds that are slowing down, we also have to deal with people who would prey on our weaknesses. Have you ever gotten a phone call purporting to be from Microsoft and offering to help you with your computer problems? Have you ever received a call from someone pretending to be your grandson and asking for money? How about a message on your answering machine claiming to be from the IRS and threatening to put you in jail unless you pay up? Well, if you have encountered any of these situations, then you know about the wolves of this world. (And don’t even get me started on politicians and pundits!)
Fortunately, we have someone trustworthy we can turn to, Jesus the Good Shepherd. Now, the word “good” does not even begin to cover the range of meanings of the original Greek word kalós. In a physical sense, it means “handsome.” And many early representations of Jesus portrayed him as a handsome young man carrying a shepherd’s crook. In a moral sense, it means something akin to our word “noble.” So, perhaps we should call today “Noble Shepherd Sunday”!
Now, when Jesus states that he is the noble shepherd, he is insinuating that others are not. This is more evident in the Greek, where the emphasis is on “I.” “I am the noble shepherd!” By implication, all other shepherds are pale imitations at best. At worst, they are wolves in shepherd’s clothing!
Admittedly, the Christian Church has long referred to its leaders as shepherds. The very word “pastor” is Latin for “shepherd.” And in the rite of consecration of a bishop, the prayer book refers to the bishop as the “chief pastor,” the chief shepherd. Such terminology is misleading and downright unbiblical. As today’s Gospel makes perfectly clear, there is only one shepherd of the sheep, and that is Jesus Christ.
As evidence that he is the one and only Noble Shepherd, Jesus offers to lay down his life for his sheep. Then, in the very same breath, he makes an oblique reference to the Resurrection that will ensue. He says, “I lay down my life in order to take it up again.” I suspect that this Resurrection reference is the reason we hear this particular Gospel reading during Eastertide. It reminds us not only that Jesus died for our sake, but also that he was resurrected for our sake. In the words of the proper preface of Easter, “by his death he has destroyed death, and by his rising to life again he has won for us everlasting life.”
Finally, let me say a few words about the “other sheep that do not belong to this fold.” Jesus says that he “must bring them also” so that “there will be one flock, one shepherd.” Most biblical scholars understand these “other sheep” to be the Gentiles who will eventually be joined to the Jewish followers of Jesus. But Jesus’ enigmatic statement is open to a broader interpretation. In the context of the contemporary Church, what might it mean to say that Jesus the Noble Shepherd has “other sheep that do not belong to this fold”? While orthodox Christianity has generally maintained that there is no salvation outside the Church, might not this reference to Jesus’ “other sheep” indicate that such is not the case? It’s something to think about!
To sum up, Jesus, using a pastoral metaphor, likens himself to a noble shepherd who is willing to die for his flock, and he likens us, his followers, to sheep who are vulnerable to attack and likely to stray. While the focus of today’s Gospel reading is undoubtedly Jesus and his relationship to us, there is a moral imperative that is implicit in today’s Gospel and that is more explicitly touched upon in the Collect of the Day; namely, we sheep are expected to listen attentively for the voice of the Noble Shepherd, to recognize it when we hear it, and to follow wherever he may lead. Admittedly, in times like these, when we are surrounded by wolves, it can be hard to filter out all the howling and to discern the life-saving voice of the Noble Shepherd. But I assure you, my fellow sheep, if we but listen carefully, we can hear him calling out our names even now.
© 2018 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.