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.
You know, I pity those poor benighted souls who labor under the delusion that today is Mother’s Day, when in fact, it is Good Shepherd Sunday. And as you know, each year on this day, followers of Jesus are called sheep. I’ll let you in on a little secret: I don’t like it very much! Now, I was all right with it once upon a time, when all I knew about sheep was based on stained-glass windows of Jesus cradling a lamb and on that nursery rhyme about Mary’s snow-white pet. But things changed for me when I was about sixteen. I actually saw a real sheep! It wasn’t white as snow at all! Instead, its bottom was filthy, and it stank to high heaven. Be that as it may, Jesus is trying to get at something important in the two parables we heard read today, so even if we don’t exactly resonate with the sheep metaphor, we would do well to “go with the flow.”
In the first parable, we’re told that the rightful shepherd is let into the sheepfold by the gatekeeper. The shepherd calls each and every one of his sheep by name, showing no partiality at all. His sheep recognize his voice and follow him; whereas, they will not follow the unfamiliar voice of a thief. It’s pretty clear that we’re dealing with an allegory here. Jesus is the shepherd, and the flock in the sheepfold is the Jewish people. Those Jews who belong to Jesus recognize who he is and follow him. The sheep left in the fold are the Jews who do not belong to Jesus and do not respond to his call. Now, the thieves and bandits in the parable probably represent the untrustworthy religious leaders of Jesus’ day. But it’s anybody’s guess who the gatekeeper who lets in the shepherd might be! Some have speculated Moses; others, John the Baptist, and still others, the Holy Spirit.