One commonality among most of the mainline church denominations is that they name their Sundays according to the liturgical season they fall in.
For example, Sundays during the Advent season are referred to as 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Sundays of Advent. The same form of reckoning holds true for Sundays in the Epiphany Season, the Season of Lent and the Sundays in the Easter season. Other Sundays of the year would then be referred to either as Sundays in Ordinary Time like in the Roman Catholic Church or as Sundays after Pentecost, as in our case in the Episcopal Church.
There are however other Sundays that are given extra names. The 2nd Sunday of Easter is a good example. If you recall, we referred to it as The Doubting Thomas Sunday. Today is the 4th Sunday of Easter and is another example of Sundays that get an extra label of identification, if you will.
This Sunday has been referred to as “Good Shepherd Sunday” simply because in all lectionary years in the three year cycle, the gospel lessons always hover on the theme about sheep, shepherd and shepherding. Consequently, a lot of sermons and reflections made for this Sunday had been based on the ovine imagery.
Today, we will carry on with that pattern and continue to explore some more in terms of its relations to our respective faith journeys as Christians. But first, let’s talk about its context.
By the time Jesus used this ovine imagery, the metaphor about sheep, shepherd and shepherding has been very much ingrained in the Jewish psyche and had become an integral part of their heritage and culture.
Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation, was known to be a keeper of great flocks and herds. Moses, the great lawgiver, was tending the flocks of his father-in-law, Jethro, when God called him into a special service. David was a shepherd boy called in from the fields and anointed to be the King of Israel.
The same imagery was also imprinted upon the literature of the day. The 23rd Psalm is frequently referred to as the shepherd psalm. "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters." When the prophet Isaiah spoke of the coming of the Messiah he worded it by saying: "He will feed his flock like a shepherd! He will gather his lambs into his arms."
“Sheep Talk” was indeed very much a part of the heritage of Jesus. It would be safe to say that, at this juncture, when Jesus talked about sheep and shepherd, his listeners would just “know” what is involved, they'd know what he is talking about and it would have been an effective conversational piece.
And what an effective teaching tool it was! Jesus, fully aware of the rampant use and popularity of such an imagery, capitalized on it and used it as a tool in his teaching ministry. Along with other records in the gospels of the references to ovine images that Jesus made, John’s gospel has the whole 10th chapter dedicated to the ovine allusions that Jesus did for himself and for his listeners.
Jesus used it to teach the people and more particularly the Pharisees the truth that he is truly the Promised Messiah and the Son of God. This story is told immediately after a healing miracle that Jesus did involving a man who was born blind.
Understandably, not all who witnessed the blind man’s restoration of sight believed that it was because of Jesus. The argument, I think, was not so much that his sight came back just like that but more so on how they could dare attribute this miracle to this itinerant preacher named Jesus of Nazareth.
This line of reasoning stems out of their belief that any and maybe all physical infirmities or bodily defects are the resultant effects of sins, a kind of penalty or punishment caused by God himself. Blindness was naturally considered as such.
The flip side of it says that any healing and in this blind man’s case, restoration of sight, could only be done by God. To say that Jesus of Nazareth, this carpenter from Nazareth, did it was tantamount to blasphemy.
For surely, they, the Pharisees, who were considered leaders of the religious establishment of the day, would have been privy to it. They would have known it. It was their business to know it. The conclusion therefore that they had was that there’s no way that Jesus could have done it, especially because he did it on the day of rest, the Sabbath. They could not accept this truth even if it came from the blind man himself.
The dialogues that took place between the ex-blind man and the Pharisees; between him and Jesus and between Jesus and the Pharisees were all sharp and astutely done.
It was this situational confrontation that eventually led Jesus to make his claims about shepherding as he confronts the Pharisees, knowing that they must have some self-induced claim to their being “shepherds of Israel” as well.
Jesus then begins by claiming that he is the Gate of the sheepfold and only through him should the sheep Israel enter. Then, beginning in verse 11 in today’s gospel lesson, we find Jesus claiming that he is also the Good Shepherd whose commitment to the flock in his care is so definitively different from that of any hired hand. He is "good" because he is more than willing to sacrifice for their sake, even his very life. He also assures others of his willingness to gather other “sheep” so that in the end, there will only be one flock and one shepherd.
Such claim prompted the Pharisees to regard it to be so atrocious that they even attempted to stone him. In the end, we know that Jesus’ relationship with the “shepherds” of the religious establishment of the day finally deteriorated and culminated in his crucifixion and eventual death.
And now, for our personal take on that claim.
If such claim were to be addressed to us, immersed as we are in our faith journeys, I wonder what our reaction might be.
So a good place to begin with is by exploring how comfortable we are when regarded as “sheep”. Having heard and known some of the negative traits and behavior of sheep, I wonder why we keep on perpetuating the image of our being like sheep. Or is it merely because our Lord Jesus has already made the claim to be the “good” if not the “best” of all shepherds that we somehow ‘logically’ assume we are the sheep?
I personally like the imagery of our being likened to sheep in spite of their seeming negative characteristics - like their being dumb and prone to wander around. We somehow emulate that very characteristic as we wander into different thickets of life and get stuck in messy situations of our own choosing. Lured by what initially seems to be “verdant” pastures, we easily embark on that which is presented to us without the benefit of giving it enough time to be seriously considered. Consequently, we get headed in the wrong direction and we end up getting caught in unhealthy situations, physically and spiritually. We find ourselves in harm’s way. In this regard we are no better than those “foolish” sheep.
There is, in fact, something very sheep-like about us, creatures of God and that while God has given us something that puts us on a higher pedestal in the order of creation, as a gift loaded with responsibilities, still, many are tempted to believe that such gift gives them a preferential status of some sort and exempts them from any accountability whatsoever and therefore need no further help from God, the Great Gift Giver. And that’s just simply incorrect!
If we consider ourselves as sheep, figuratively that is, then we definitely need a shepherd; one who will lead as we journey through life’s peaks and valleys; through life’s varied, dangerous pastureland.
And we, by God’s providence, have a Good Shepherd who is always ready to go after us, even when we stray too far. His voice is constantly reaching out to us in and through faith communities in the totality of their life and work and in the spreading of the Good News of Salvation.
We have the Good Shepherd who has shown His loving grace calling and helping us back to the safety of his fold. It is the same good shepherd who allows his sometime foolish sheep; his oftentimes stubborn, hardheaded sheep to wander and be caught in the crags of the rock hills.
We have the Good Shepherd who risked his life for our salvation. We have the Good Shepherd who is willing to leave the other sheep and seek for the one who might have been wandering elsewhere in the vast virtual grazing land; a shepherd who knows his own just as his own know him.
As it turns out, being a sheep is harder than it appears. It's hard to admit we don't always know what is best for ourselves. It's humbling to have someone else guide our lives, urge us and prod us into doing what we don't want to do. It's hard to be part of a flock; one of many cared for and loved sheep, all of whom the shepherd looks out for just as much as the shepherd looks out for us.
But God promises that the challenge is worth our effort. We are the protected sheep; nourished with the gift of grace and individually counted as precious. Jesus offers to lead us – and all we need to do is to follow. Jesus offers to love us – and all we have to do is let ourselves be loved. God promises to care for us – and all we need to have is the faith that God, the Good Shepherd, knows the path.
So what is holding you back?