4th Sunday of Easter 2011:
Today Jesus uses figurative language to help us understand who he is. Yet, for many of us, these images are somewhat foreign to us. All of us have heard about Jesus the Good Shepherd, but maybe we don't understand this image as well as we should.
First of all, let's talk about sheep. The Lord is my shepherd, our Psalm says today. We are his people, the sheep of his flock, it says in another Psalm. Sheep and flocks are a common image in the Bible for God's people. Normally when we think about these sheep we picture cute, little, fluffy-haired animals. To think of ourselves as sheep is quite the endearing image. But, the truth of the matter is that being called sheep is not a very flattering image. First of all, sheep are really dumb. They do not know how to find their own food. Unlike other animals, sheep have no natural instinct about finding their way back to a home. They are prone to wander off. Also, we picture sheep as these little white creatures, but they are actually quite dirty. They spend a good deal of their time lying on the ground. Sheep are also dependent; without a shepherd, sheep would die in the ancient world. Nowadays we keep sheep in fenced in areas, but in the time of Jesus a shepherd would have to lead and guide the sheep at all times. So when it comes to sheep there are three d's to remember. Sheep are dumb, dirty, and dependent. This is not a very flattering image, but it is one that is quite true of us sometimes isn't it.
We can be dumb: every time we fall into sin or do something stupid we are being like sheep! We wander away from God and get tangled up and dirty. So these two things are true of us. But the most important one to remember is that we are dependent upon God for everything. Just like sheep, we would perish without our shepherd. We are completely dependent on God. But, this is one of the greatest spiritual problems of our day and age. Too many of us think of ourselves as being self-sufficient. We work hard and accomplish things on our own right? Wrong, everything we have comes from God and if we don't rely on his guidance we will wander astray. We need a shepherd.
By calling us sheep, we could think that Jesus is criticizing us and calling us dumb and dirty. But, Jesus came not to condemn us, but to save us. This is why he calls himself the shepherd. The image of the shepherd is another image that we don't completely understand. There is a great and storied history of Shepherds in the Old Testament. For example, both Moses and David, two of the greatest figures in the Bible, were shepherds. However, Moses and David both lived during a time when Israel was a nomadic people. When Israel settled into the Holy Land and built the temple they became a more settled and agrarian society. As a result it fell to the outcasts of society to take care of the sheep. Shepherds were not high and mighty; rather, the opposite is true: shepherds were seen as lowly outcasts, dumb and dirty like the sheep they took care of.
So when Jesus calls himself the shepherd it is a beautiful way to describe the incarnation itself. Jesus, himself the Son of God, became lowly, a humble shepherd. We are sheep: dumb, dirty, and dependent. But, God loved us so much that he sent his Son to be our shepherd.
In the ancient world shepherds had two main jobs. First of all, the shepherd protects his sheep. Jesus is the good shepherd who laid his life down for us. As we continue to celebrate the Easter season we remember that Jesus suffered and died to defend us from our greatest enemies: sin and death. Truly, Christ is the good shepherd who defends his sheep.
Also, shepherds had to guide the sheep. The same is true of us; Jesus has to be the one to lead us. Just like those sheep, we have to listen to the voice of the shepherd, but do we hear his voice? Do we spend time in prayer, do we read the Bible, do we listen to the voice of the Church, etc.? These are the ways we can hear the voice of the Good Shepherd. Where will this voice lead us? The Psalm says that the shepherd leads us to verdant pastures. These green pastures are important because they are the places where the good food is located. Christ leads us to these green pastures by way of another food.
Here in the Holy Eucharist our Good shepherd is feeding us. Here in the Holy Eucharist we receive the Body and Blood of Christ, the food that will sustain us in our journey through life. Like sheep, we might be dumb, dirty, and dependent. But, thanks be to God for he sent his only begotten son protect and guide us. Jesus says that he came so that we might have life and have it abundantly. We usually think about heaven when we read a passage like this. But, the truth is that by receiving Holy Eucharist this abundant life begins here and now.