Not having much, actually any, experience as a shepherd I have always struggled with the metaphor of being a shepherd, which may explain why I don’t use the word pastor all that often. However, I recently encountered a metaphor that does appeal to me. Minister and author Craig Barnes wrote in his latest book, Diary of a Pastor’s Soul that he has always been uneasy with thinking of himself as the shepherd of the congregation. That role belongs to Jesus Christ. He writes, “It’s far more helpful to think of myself as a sheepdog that nudges sheep toward the only Saviour of the flock…like all sheepdogs I have to be more attentive to the Good Shepherd than to many other agendas in a congregation. Jesus doesn’t call us to take on every need that comes our way.” While sheepdogs are various breeds like Border Collies or Shelties all sheepdogs are smart, have a loud bark and shed a lot. So yeah with my great intelligence, loud voice and often shedding hair, I definitely identify more with sheepdogs than shepherds. In this morning’s gospel lesson Jesus really builds on the shepherd metaphor which, if you’re like me with very limited shepherding experience, can be troublesome. The relief comes in the fact that Jesus clearly points to himself as the shepherd not us.
Jesus also does something strange with the image by calling himself the “good” shepherd. I’ve often wondered why he felt the need to qualify that. The thing is that shepherds were viewed with contempt in 1st century Palestine, so it is a very strange thing to compare oneself to a shepherd. They were poor, smelly, and had a reputation for inappropriate behaviour. While shepherding people was a metaphor for leadership, particularly religious leadership, for much of Israel’s history, it too was often used in a derogatory way. In fact, the prophet Ezekiel, in chapter 34 of his book really digs into the people who are supposed to be leading Israel and calls them false shepherds. Those who were supposed to be looking after the flock of Israel have done nothing but look out for themselves- thus leading the sheep into exile. I’m not going to preach on Ezekial 34 but I would commend it to you for reading at another time because when read through the lens of filthy leadership or a leadership that cares only about themselves and not the poor, I find it uncomfortably too close to our own reality.
And, before we think that Jesus came up with this shepherd metaphor all on his own we have to look at the long use of the analogy through out the Old Testament. I already mentioned Ezekiel, which was written around the 8th century BCE but as early as Genesis when Jacob bestows his last words to his sons, he declares that his son Joseph will be blessed by the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel. And of course, there is the familiar and comforting shepherding language found throughout the psalms, particularly Psalm 23.
The reasons that Jesus has to declare himself as the good shepherd is twofold. One, he wants to make the comparison between himself and the one prophesied about in Ezekiel and two, because people didn’t expect shepherds to be good. In the original Greek the term “good” can also be translated as noble or beautiful. This nobility of the shepherd is certainly reflected in the second line of our gospel text in which it says that the good shepherd or noble shepherd is willing to die for the sheep.
We tend to sentimentalize this image of a shepherd and there is a danger to this too. Sure, it’s very bucolic, the idea of a shepherd in a lovely field surrounded by fluffy docile sheep but that’s not what shepherding is about. It is a costly job that often places the shepherd in danger. Shepherds were expected to fight off any predators. Unlike a hired hand who will run away at the first threat a shepherd steps in to protect their sheep. And it’s hard work, being outdoors in all kinds of weather at all times of the day or night- this is likely one of the many reasons that I don’t like to call myself a shepherd- I love the outdoors but don’t have the stamina to do it 24hrs a day in all-weather conditions. Jesus is stating that not only is he good but he is the right one for the job. He is the one who will be able to contend with all the challenges that his helpless sheep find themselves in.
Then there is another key point that is made by Jesus about what kind of shepherd he will be. Not only will he be good, or noble and will lay his life down, not only is he the right one for the job with the courage, strength, and endurance to face the challenges. But will he know his sheep. He will know every cry, he will know every bleat and baaaah. We are known better by Jesus then we know ourselves. And on top of that he will keep an ear out for those bleats he doesn’t recognize. This shepherd won’t just look out for his own flock but for any lost sheep that come his way. Jesus says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.” Here we get an inkling of the depth of God’s not only redemptive but universal love.
Craig Barnes goes on to say, “Our delight has to come from helping others gather around the Good Shepherd. Thinking of myself as a sheepdog saves me from the illusion that the pastor is necessary. I am cherished and called by the Shepherd to serve the flock. But I can save no one. Getting off that hook is the best way I know to handle the inevitable failures in ministry and still enjoy a long tenure of service to a congregation.” And guess what, you’re all in this with me. You’re sheepdogs too. Our job, is to be the sheepdogs, the constant companions to the shepherd. Training our ears to the commands and yapping our way in the follow through. So, bark bark, let’s hear what the Good shepherd is calling us to do. Amen.