Sunday 13 April 2008

Sheep and Shepherds

1. Today’s 2nd reading from St John’s Gospel is part of an extended parable about sheep and shepherds.

We only heard the first part. In the very next verse, which we didn’t hear because the Lectionary keeps it for another day, Jesus continues “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” This image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is so familiar, and so lovely, isn’t it? We have all seen the pictures of the strong self-reliant country man keeping his little flock safe from harm, carrying the lost sheep back to the flock on his shoulders. But the details of the story we’ve just heard might seem a little odd, at first sight – at least they did to me!

I remember when I was a child, helping the men on my Grandfather’s farm move the sheep from one field to another up the road. Those sheep certainly didn’t recognise anyone’s voice, let alone mine as a twelve year old! You couldn’t lead them; in fact it was the divil’s own job trying to stop them from charging off in the wrong direction. We stood in gaps and we waved our hands and we hunted them as best we could to their new field of fresh grass, but they didn’t want to go at all!

I know some of you keep sheep. What do you think about Jesus’s story? Does it ring a bell? Do you name your sheep and recognise them individually? Do they know you and follow you when you call them? Perhaps so, but I rather doubt it – that’s not how we manage sheep in Ireland! And what’s all this about gatekeepers and how should we understand Jesus as the gate? And what do the thieves and bandits represent?

To understand this parable properly, I think we have to enter imaginatively into the world of shepherds in Judea 2000 years ago, and try to appreciate the significance of shepherding to the ancient Israelites. And that is what I shall try to do today.

2. The imagery of sheep and the shepherd runs right through the OT, the Jewish scriptures.

This isn’t really surprising, because the main part of Judea is a rough and stony upland plateau, much more a pastoral than an agricultural country. Sheep and goats were always the main source of wealth there, and the shepherd tending his flocks would have been a common sight.

The shepherd life was a hard one. The sheep had to be watched all the time. With little grass, and open hillsides without walls or fences, the sheep were always liable to stray and get lost, or fall into a ravine. The work was constant, but also dangerous – the sheep needed to be protected from wild predators – wolves and at least in the early days lions - and there were always thieves and robbers ready to steal them. Constant vigilance, fearless courage and patient love for his flock were the hallmarks of a good shepherd.

In such a pastoral society, it was quite natural for the ancient Israelites to picture their God as the shepherd and the people as his flock. They expressed this in so many of their hymns – our psalms – but in none more beautifully than the 23rd Psalm which we read today. I like it best in the C16th Scottish metrical version we still sing

The Lord’s my shepherd; I’ll not want,
he makes me down to lie
in pastures green, he leadeth me
the quiet waters by.

Isaiah (40:11) too likened the Lord God to a shepherd: “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” Beautiful words.

And Ezekiel (34:2) applies the metaphor of the shepherd to the leaders of Israel in a great indictment for their bad leadership and corruption: “Ah you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep?” The same indictment might be made of some of the great and powerful of our society!

3. Jesus was drawing on this wealth of literary and religious imagery in his parable.

But he was also drawing on the common knowledge of how shepherds worked; it would have been very familiar to his audience, which was a group of Pharisees who had been harassing Jesus and his disciples.

Judean shepherds then had a quite different relationship with their sheep to Irish shepherds today. Flocks were much smaller: shepherds did indeed give their sheep individual names, no doubt descriptive ones, like Brown-ear, or White-leg. They didn’t use dogs as we do to manage their flocks; instead they controlled them by distinctive calls. When the shepherd called the sheep they would indeed recognise his voice and follow after him.

In the two halves of the passage we heard from John, commentators suggest that Jesus is talking about two different kinds of sheepfolds.

  • The first kind is a large communal fold near a village, surrounded by walls and fences with a gate. The village would employ a gatekeeper to protect the sheep in the communal fold. In the morning the gatekeeper would open the gate to the shepherd who would call his own flock out, but the other flocks wouldn’t recognise the call and would stay behind until their own shepherd came.
  • The second kind of sheepfold would be up in the hills, far from the village, and much smaller. It would be used in summer, when the shepherd would stay out with the sheep for days or weeks on end. To protect the flock at night from wild animals or robbers, the shepherd would lead them into a small enclosure, perhaps just a dry-stone wall built by himself. Instead of a gate, he would lie down to sleep in the entrance where any movement in or out would wake him up. I’ve found similar structures up in the Burren hills, which may well have been used this way when shepherds went up to the summer Booley centuries ago. When Jesus said “I am the gate”, he probably meant it quite literally!

By calling himself the good shepherd, I think Jesus is quite deliberately doing two things:

  • Firstly he is proclaiming his right to lead his disciples – those who recognise his voice - as he goes about his Father God’s work. His disciples - “Whoever enters by me” - “will be saved”, he says. They “will come in and go out and find pasture.”
  • But secondly Jesus is also implicitly accusing the leaders of his own day – the Pharisees he was talking to - of being bad shepherds, just as Ezekiel had done centuries before. “All who came before me are thieves and bandits;” he says, “but the sheep did not listen to them.” The thieves and bandits are surely those who try to mislead the people.

4. I suggest that the message we should take from the parable of the Good Shepherd is that we still need spiritual leadership today.

Our Lord Jesus Christ will always be our Good Shepherd, of course. We should hold on to that comforting, familiar image, and listen to his words as he leads us to find good pasture. After all he has told us “Remember, I am with you always.”

But after his ascension, Jesus passed on the shepherd’s mantle to others, starting with the apostles. John (21:15-17) tells us that Jesus said to Peter “Feed my lambs … tend my sheep … feed my sheep”. Bishops from that day to this have inherited the shepherd’s mantle.

But since Bishop Michael’s retirement - I like his sense of humour, he retired on 1st April! - we are without a bishop in this diocese. If I look about me, I detect a sense of gathering crisis - my wife I'm sure would say this is just my inate pessimism! I think that now, especially, we have a great need for the wise and loving Christian leadership which it is a bishop’s job to give us. As a Church we are faced with schism in our Anglican communion. As a nation we are moving into economic recession, hard times are coming for many. As a species we are wrestling with resource depletion and global warming, a result of human greed. The thieves and bandits are still about us.

The Electoral College has been convened by the Archbishop of Dublin to meet on 6th May to elect a new bishop. It is a great and onerous responsibility for whoever is chosen. Let us pray that the Holy Spirit will inspire them to choose the right person for the job: someone who is a good shepherd, someone with constant vigilance, someone with fearless courage, and someone with patient love for his or her flock.