The sheep hear His voice, and He calls His own sheep by name and leads them out. When He has brought out all His own, He goes before them, and the sheep follow Him, for they know His voice.
One Sunday morning, after the church service, a man confronts the pastor and said, Pastor, this church has been insulting me for years, and I didn’t know it until this week. The stunned pastor replied, what on earth do you mean? Well, every Sunday morning the call to worship in this church ends with the words, we are the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand. And I have heard ministers over the years call the congregation, God’s flock. Then this past week I visited the Chicago stockyards. Where I discovered that sheep are just about the dumbest animals God ever created. Why, they are so stupid that they even follow one another passively into the slaughterhouse. Even pigs are smarter than sheep, and I would certainly be angry if my church called me a pig’ every Sunday morning. So, I’m not at all sure I want to come to church and be called a sheep any longer…even God’s sheep.
The man had a point. But whether we like it or not, that’s the language of the Bible: both the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament. We’re called “God’s sheep.” The favorite Psalm of many people is the 23rd, and it begins by saying, The Lord is my shepherd… And if the Lord is my shepherd, then I am one of the Lord’s sheep. Centuries before Christ, the prophet Isaiah said to his people: All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:6)
From the Bible, we’ve taken this pastoral imagery over into the Church. One of the symbols of the office of bishop has been the shepherd’s crook, that long staff with a hook on the end. And ministers are often called “pastors.” In the dictionary, one of the meanings of “pastor” is “shepherd,” coming from a Latin word which means “feeder.” At the end of John’s Gospel, we have the last time Jesus appears by the Sea of Galilee when He asks Peter three times whether he loved Him, and Peter answered three times that he did. And Jesus said to Peter, Feed My sheep.
The word “pastor” is a common one used to refer to an ordained person who is the spiritual leader of a congregation. Sometimes I wonder whether it’s not a bit outdated, since it refers to a country area, farmland or even a ranch, the pastoral metaphor seems rather out of date in our busy, urban, industrialized society. On the other hand, it beats the dickens out of the everyday “reverend.” For many years people have insisted on using “reverend” as a title, when in reality it’s an adjective modifying a noun. It’s not grammatically, Biblically, or theologically correct to use it as a title. As an adjective it means “worthy of reverence,” and I don’t feel any more worthy of reverence than anyone else. Mostly, I feel a lot less worthy! The word is used in the Bible only once (in the King James Version) and it refers to God who alone is “worthy of reverence.” It doesn’t appear in the newer translations at all.
Some years ago, I found myself at a pastor’s conference among a bunch of bishops, what are commonly called District Presidents. I don’t know what else to call them. I know about a “gaggle of geese” and a “flock of birds” but what do you call a gathering of bishops? I settle on “bunch.” There was some sort of unintentional pride involved in the proceedings, for in front of the various clerical dignitaries, along with their names, were written their titles, the “Most Reverend” so-and-so, the “Right Reverend” so-and-so, and the “Very Reverend” so-and so. Being the jokester that I am, I printed on my card the “Hardly Reverend”, which, of course, made me guilty of a reverse sort of pride.
All in all, I believe that the term “pastor” is probably preferable to the term “reverend.” My point is that Biblical terminology regarding sheep and shepherds has been used by the Church for many centuries, and perhaps we’re stuck with it. We call pastors and bishops “shepherds,” and it all comes from the fact that Jesus said, I am the good shepherd.
Now, when Jesus spoke those words, He was making a Messianic claim. Every Jew of His time knew, as we know, the opening verse of the 23rd Psalm: The Lord is my shepherd. They were also familiar, as most of us are not, with the opening verse of Psalm 80: Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock! The people of Jesus’ time, the image of God as a shepherd was a common part of their worship services and daily prayers. It reflected their culture, for then, as now, in the Holy Land shepherds and sheep can be seen on almost every hill. But one of the problems with such pastoral terminology is that most of us don’t live in such a country culture. Not many of us have actually ever seen shepherds doing their thing, and there may be those among us who have never even seen a sheep! Up close, I mean. The smelly kind…not the sanitized versions we see in pictures in the Bible and in stained glass windows in church. The problem is, how do we translate the imagery from a first-century pastoral society to that of a twentieth-century technological society? How would you explain Jesus’ words, I am the good shepherd to an inner-city kid who has never seen a sheep?
When Jesus called Himself the Good Shepherd, there was no doubt in anybody’s mind that He was making a Messianic claim. He was comparing Himself to God. Those who heard His words, I’m sure thought of the prophecy of Isaiah 40:11, where there’s an even more apparent comparison between Jesus and the promised Messiah: 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.
He shall feed His flock like a shepherd; and He shall gather the lambs with His arm, and carry them in His bosom, and gently lead those that are with young…Then it continues with words that send a thrill up and down our spines: Come unto Him, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and He will give you rest.
“I am the Good Shepherd,” said Jesus.
Let’s take a few minutes to think of the possibilities such a picture of God might present. I am the good shepherd. I know My own and My own know Me, Jesus said in John 10:14. He says that He knows all of His sheep by name. What a wonderful word for those of us who live in such an impersonal age. Sometimes we begin to feel as though we are merely numbers on somebody’s gigantic computer. But Jesus says that He knows all of us by name.
A census taker who was making his rounds in the lower East side of New York, interviewed an Irish woman bending over her washtub. Lady, I’m taking the census. What’s your name? How many children have you? She replied, well, let me see. My name is Mary. And then there’s Marcia, and Duggie, and Amy, and Patrick, and, he stopped her there and said, never mind the names, just give me the numbers. She straightened up, hands on hips, and with a twinkle in her eye, said, I’ll have ye know, sir, we ain’t got into numberin’ them yet. We ain’t run out of names! The image of God as the Good Shepherd tells us that’s the way it is with God. He knows us by name. That’s why we say the child’s name clearly when a child is baptized.
The Good Shepherd cares for all of His sheep, and not just some of them. And not for some of them more than others of them. Remember that Jesus was talking to people who had come to think of themselves as “God’s pets.” So, He said to them these shocking words: I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to My voice. So, there will be one flock, one shepherd. (John 10:6) In the context, He was probably referring to the Gentiles who had not yet heard the good news of the Gospel. At the time of the writing of the Fourth Gospel the good news was just beginning to spread out into the Graeco-Roman world, as the disciples, some of whom would never even think of entering the home of a Gentile (like Peter in Acts 10) were beginning to realize that the good news which Jesus came to bring was for every person, every tribe, on this planet.
The Good Shepherd promises to keep His sheep. That doesn’t mean that they will never have any problems. It does mean, that they will never face any problems alone. The 23rd Psalm doesn’t promise us that we will never have to go through “the valley of the shadow” but it does promise us that no one has to make that journey alone. Thou art with me.
Faith is not a way of avoiding the difficult times of life, what Shakespeare called the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. They come to all people. Faith is rather a way to face them head-on and be victorious over them because we don’t face them alone. The power behind us is greater than the problems before us.
The Good Shepherd goes after His sheep when they get lost. This is the new and shocking dimension of God’s love which Jesus came to bring and died to prove. When Jesus was criticized for hanging out with the “wrong kinds” of people, He replied to His critics: which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? (Luke 15:4)
Does that mean that, ultimately, God will get all of us? I have no special inside information on the subject, but I certainly hope so! I wouldn’t be the least offended if God did get us all, eventually. Would you? I get the impression from some preachers I have heard, especially those on television, that a part of what makes heaven “heaven” for them is the idea that some folks are going to hell. To me they seem more concerned about saving hell than saving people from hell. But Jesus says that God is a Good Shepherd, who seeks after the sheep “until he finds them.”
I wonder: How long is it until? I have a hunch that God never gives up on any of us. I’m not at all sure that all of us will respond to God’s love, but I believe that God’s love is always an open option for any of us.
The Apostles’ Creed insists that He (Jesus) descended into hell. Why? Christians believe that Jesus descended into hell to bring back those who had never had the chance to hear the good news and respond to it. It sounds like something that the Good Shepherd would do! Will God ultimately get all of us? I have no idea. I hope so. But I can assure you God never gives up on any one of us, and God never takes away from us the freedom to say “No.” How it will all work out ultimately, I leave it up to God.
So, who needs a shepherd? We do. I do. Cows don’t need a keeper in the fields. They can take care of themselves. Even the pig, who doesn’t get much credit, is able to take care of himself. But sheep require a shepherd. Without a shepherd, they’ll walk right off a cliff while they’re grazing. The symbol of the shepherd is the shepherd’s “crook” which is used to reach out and rescue the sheep from their own stupidity. And who will rescue us from ours?
We have a shepherd. Jesus said, I am the Good Shepherd. And what proof did He offer to justify such an extravagant claim? The Good Shepherd lays down His life for His sheep. Can you see how everything gets turned upside-down in the Gospel story? In ancient times shepherds rounded up their sheep and offered them to be sacrificed on altars to appease the wrath of an angry God; but in the Gospels, Jesus, the Good Shepherd, lays down His life to show us the sheer grace of a loving God. That’s awesome…and not a little frightening. To be the object of such fantastic limitless love. The fact that we so easily take it for granted shows how much we have missed the miracle of its meaning.
Our Good Shepherd finds the sheep that were lost! Jesus said, I am the Good Shepherd. He’s out there on all the roads where people like you and me get ourselves lost…gently calling our names.