Today, the fourth Sunday of Easter, is known as Good Shepherd Sunday. But who is this good shepherd?
Well: the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, says that God the Creator, the God of Israel, the Living One, is the good shepherd.We hear that in Psalm 23: “The Lord, ADONAI, is my shepherd; I need nothing more. God gives me rest in green meadows, near calm waters; God guides me along safe paths; and even when I walk through dangerous places, God’s shepherd’s staff guards and comforts me.”
And we hear it other places too – like the 34th chapter of the book of the prophet Ezekiel: “Thus says the Lord God:… As shepherds seek out their flocks.., so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness…. They shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, says the Lord God.”
The word Sheep occurs 190 times in the Old Testament, in the New Revised Standard Version; the word Shepherd appears 97 times. Those numbers are a mix of stories about actual sheep and shepherds, and metaphorical uses like those I’ve just quoted.
Why so many sheep?
Well: Tending sheep and goats – what anthropologists call pastoralism – was the culturally foundational way of life of God’s people Israel. Even as they settled into agriculture, urbanization, trade and so on, they still thought of themselves as a sheep-herding people at heart. Maybe a good analogy is the way small family farms have a kind of symbolic status as “the real American way of life,” even though very few Americans have lived that way for a long time.
So: In the Old Testament, God the Father is the good shepherd. And in the New Testament, Jesus, God the Son, takes on that role. We hear that in today’s text from the Gospel of John, when Jesus says: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.” This is just a portion of a longer speech in which Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd; the lectionary gives us a piece of it on this Sunday each year of our three-year cycle.
Jesus knew the Hebrew scriptures well; he is riffing on texts like Ezekiel and Psalm 23, here, as he describes himself as the good shepherd who will tend his sheep, even at cost of his own life.
So, then, who are the sheep? In the Old Testament, the sheep are the people Israel, God’s chosen flock. In this passage from John’s Gospel, and elsewhere in the New Testament, the sheep are Jesus’ followers – all those who respond to the voice of the Good Shepherd.
But also: Jesus himself is a sheep. Or at least: a lamb. The idea of Jesus as a sacrificial lamb may have begun because his execution was close to the Jewish feast of Passover. In the Passover story – the Exodus story – God tells the people Israel, enslaved in Egypt, to kill a perfect lamb and use its blood to mark the doors of their homes. The lamb’s blood will protect them from the angel of death, as it swoops across Egypt, to pressure Pharaoh to set God’s people free. The New Testament writers explore the image of Jesus as Passover lamb, whose blood saves God’s people from bondage and death.
The book of the Revelation of John in particular leans in hard to the idea of Jesus as Passover Lamb – AND as the true Shepherd of God’s people. In our text today it puts them side by side: “The Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd.” A lamb who is also a shepherd? It’s an intentional paradox.
These early church leaders and writers are playing with this pastoral imagery that pervades their tradition, to find ways to talk about who they are coming to understand Jesus to be. Fully God and fully human. At once both sheep and shepherd.
But Jesus isn’t the only one for whom sheepness and shepherdness are a little jumbled up. It can happen with God’s people too.
Most of us – maybe all of us? – don’t have a lot of contact with sheep. We tend to think of them as sort of an undifferentiated fluffy white mass. Our cultural associations with sheep involve unthinking conformity – consider the word “sheeple.” But the scriptural tradition thinks there are differences among sheep. That among sheep as among people there are leaders and followers, winners and losers, those who help and those who harm.
In that text from Ezekiel, God speaking through the prophet accuses Israel’s leaders of being lazy, cruel, self-serving shepherds. But God also accuses the sheep of harming one another. Some of the sheep have been greedy, at the expense of others. To them, God says, “Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.”
And then there’s Peter’s role – the apostle Peter, who becomes the greatest leader of the early church. Last week we heard the risen Jesus telling Peter – three times – to show his love for Jesus by tending Jesus’ sheep. So who is Peter, then? The lead sheep – the bellwether? A junior shepherd, serving by the divine Good Shepherd? A little of both?
Either way, in this week’s reading from the book of the Acts of the Apostles, stories of the early church after Jesus returned to God, we see Peter tending Jesus’ flock, fulfilling that call, by responding quickly and compassionately to the people who come from Joppa to seek his help, as they grieve the loss of a beloved pillar of their community. Sheep can hurt each other… or help each other.
We are God’s sheep, Jesus’ flock. But we’re not an undifferentiated fluffy mass. We’re not sheeple. I’ve heard many a sermon on the stupidity of sheep. I’m pretty sure I’ve preached one myself. But that’s not an emphasis in the Bible.
What does the Bible tell us about sheep, and thus, about ourselves? That we’re vulnerable – to dangerous environments, to predators, to bad shepherds who profit off of us instead of caring for us. To being scattered or lost or stolen.
That we’re interdependent. When there’s lots of lush grass and fresh water, we all flourish. When resources are scarce, we don’t.
That left to ourselves, we’ll hurt each other. The stronger sheep will bully the weaker sheep and push them away from food or water.
That we need to be tended. Found and gathered. Guided. Fed. Protected. Comforted. That deep down, we know the voice of our true Shepherd, and will respond and follow.
All of that seems true to me. All of that makes me feel pretty sheep-ish.
I’m glad to know that we are in the ultimate care of the Good Shepherd. That someone is watching over us, guarding and guiding. But trusting in the Good Shepherd doesn’t mean that I, and we, don’t have our own sheeply responsibilities. We, too, will face moments when we’re called to show our love of Jesus by tending Jesus’ sheep. We, too, will face moments when the stronger sheep are ganging up on the weaker sheep, and we have to choose sides – or walk away, which is also choosing a side.
But I’ll tell you one more thing about sheep – something the Bible doesn’t bother to talk about because it takes it for granted: Sheep are tough.
Pastoralism is a way to live in environments too harsh or hilly for agriculture. Sheep can handle high altitudes, cold weather, and rough terrain. They graze on steep hill and mountainsides, where there’s no way you could grow crops. Sheep are mobile; when one area is grazed out they move on to the next area. The wool that makes them so useful to humans also protects them from bitter cold and wind.
Sheep find what they need, in dry and craggy places, in the valley of the shadow of death, and turn it into wool and milk and lambs. They appreciate a nice flat, green pasture… but they don’t absolutely need one.
I lived around sheep for one summer, in 2000. I was hired to help with a project in Eskdale, in northern England. It’s a beautiful green valley surrounded by very steep, rocky hills. And – yep – it’s sheep country.
I remember jokes about how Eskdale sheep – a hardy breed called Herdwicks – would develop legs that were shorter on one side, from constantly grazing on steep hillsides.
I’d honestly kind of forgotten the Eskdale Herdwicks until this week. I found some photos online that brought back memories. My favorite is a sheep standing tall against the sky on the lichen-covered boulders of Hardknott Pass. I remember Hardknott Pass; we hiked up it one day. The road over that pass is the steepest road in Great Britain, ascending 1200 feet at a 33% grade. Challenging for humans and cars. No sweat for sheep.
The world doesn’t feel like a place of green pastures and still waters at the moment. Bossy sheep and bad shepherds abound.
I think what I need from Good Shepherd Sunday this year is the reminder that with a loving Shepherd to guard and guide them, sheep can handle a lot. Sheep can stick together and find what they need, in harsh environments and hard seasons.
May the Lamb who is our loving Shepherd protect us, tend us, and equip us for the landscape ahead.