The story of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is fully of imagery.
The Shepherd-Have you ever met a shepherd? I have an image of a weather beaten man with a sheepdog on the Welsh hills or David sitting on a Palestinian hill or Brokeback Mountain with those beautiful scene of the hills and the shepherds on horseback. Shepherds care for their sheep, make sure they have food and water, and protect them- in first century Palestine, from wolves.
When I was little my favourite book was about Sooty the sheepdog who fought off the bad wolf who came to harass the sheep and even stole one. Powerful imagery.
The Sheep Gate is less clear to me. But my grandma had a picture of sheep in her bedroom and when I stayed over she told me to count sheep. The sheep were enclosed in a field by a gate. So the gate also protected the sheep and controlled who came in and who came out.
The Shepherd’s Voice-Sheep and sheep dog are trained to respond to the shepherds voice. A shout, a word means everything-from the shepherd. There is the story of the man who gets lost in the mountains in a snow storm. He hears the voice of a well known mountain guide who tells him to jump. It’s a drop and he cant see what is at the bottom but he trusts the voice. He jumps and is saved.
Sheep have a bad press. “Like sheep”! “Dressed like mutton”…but also “like a lamb” for trusting passivity. Sheep are lost without a leader, a shepherd. They will die without a good shepherd.
Gates-Some powerful gates for me are the gates to the nunnery on Iona, which are latticed and latched and creak in the dark, dark nights on the island. Or the sheep gate on Holy Island, which is a metal gate that lets only one person through and is too complex for the sheep in the field to fathom. There are other gates: the gates to Winson Green prison, the gates to the church heavy and old with a loud clunk when it shuts. Gates control space and are boundaries to activity. Gate keepers are important people like lock keepers.
Jesus is saying he is a gate keeper as well as a shepherd.
One of the most powerful images of Jesus is as the good shepherd with the lost sheep on his shoulders. Jesus the good shepherd has come to seek and save the lost sheep. And one of the most well known biblical text is the “The Lords my Shepherd” Ps 23. So it’s a very powerful image of God too.
Most shepherds take care of sheep, although they may be responsible for goats as well. They often work in isolated areas and may work independently except for the assistance of herding or guard dogs. Many sheepherders must be on call for their animals around the clock.
A shepherd’s primary responsibility is the safety and welfare of the flock. Some flocks may include as many as 1,000 sheep. The shepherd will graze the animals, herding them to areas of good forage, and keeping a watchful eye out for poisonous plants. Shepherds often live in trailers or other mobile quarters. As the sheep eat all the grass in an area, the shepherd will move both the sheep and his living quarters to fresh pasture. In most cases, the shepherd and his dogs will move the sheep out to fresh grazing each day and bring them back to bed down in the same area each night.
To protect the sheep under his care, a shepherd may use guard dogs or other guard animals. Sheep predators include coyotes, wolves, mountain lions, bears and domestic dogs. Domestic dogs are a menace because they may chase sheep to exhaustion and cause the ewes to abort their lambs. In addition to using guard animals, many sheepherders carry rifles to shoot predators that are attacking the sheep. Cell phones and radios may also be used to call for assistance when necessary.
Like other animals, sheep are susceptible to diseases, and they must also be monitored during the lambing process. They may also be bothered by insects, some of which carry disease. Shepherds are often responsible for minor injuries or basic medical treatment, especially since they work in isolated areas far from veterinary services. In addition, shepherds may administer worming medication or vaccines and apply insecticides. During lambing season, the shepherd will make frequent checks on the ewes at all hours of the day and night, and may assist the ewe if birthing problems occur. Shepherds may also dock, or cut off, the tails of young lambs.
Unlike other animals that shed their hair in the spring, many breeds of sheep must be shorn -- have their fleece cut off with shears or clippers. This task may be assigned to sheepshearers, whose primary occupation is shearing, or it may be the responsibility of the shepherd. Sheep may be sheared in the open or in holding pens. An experienced shepherd is expected to shear up to 125 ewes a day without nicking or cutting the skin, and to remove the fleece intact.
Shepherds themselves need to eat sleep and rest because they are potentially on call to rescue lost sheep and they need to be alert and wise to wolves.
Who in your life has been a good shepherd to you? I did a funeral for a man called Ian. He was a senior paramedic at West Midlands Ambulance Service -and he cared about people-loads of people. He was a good shepherd.
One Anglican Bishop practiced his sermons by preaching to his sheep when he was first ordained. They listened to his voice, which they recognized. They stayed near to him knowing that they were safe there. I wonder what they thought of his sermons!
Some years ago I was invited to speak to the Presbyterian Church in Wales. I said that I thought the church in Western Europe was declining because we failed to be good shepherds. Our society desperately needs spiritual shepherds. There were nods from an audience many of whom were sheep farmers or who had sheep farming in their family, in their genes.
In our time there are many voices competing for our attention. In economic recession there are strident voices encouraging a way, the right way, nationalism and Xenophobia. We may lose the voice of the good shepherd and go astray from time to time and fall into danger, perhaps following a voice that sounds strong and smart and seductive, but different. We may follow a path that leads us away from God. Whose voice do we follow? What gate do we enter by? What gate do we lead others through? I leave you to ponder.