THE GOOD SHEPHERD
When I was a boy growing up in England during the austere days following World War 2, there were two images I used to love. The first was a picture of a grazier in far off Australia droving a mob of sheep across a river. To me it was a picture of the life I’d like to have.
The other was a picture of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, leading some sheep safely through a ravine to a gently flowing stream. It reminded me of a character in a comic book I used to have. He was a shepherd in the Highlands of Scotland whose companion was a border collie named Lassie – not the Lassie of the American TV series
I always loved that character, and especially the way he and Lassie protected his flock from storms, wild dogs, thieves and other dangers.
The closest I ever got to either of these pictures came one year after I arrived in Australia, when I worked for a short time on a wheat and sheep farm near Gilgandra. I remember Jack, the old farmer, well. He was an honest, hard-working man who ran the farm with his two sons
But that’s where the similarity with the Scottish shepherd ended, because for Jack and his sons, the sheep were nothing more than a commodity to make money – there was no relationship with them.
Those were the days of the golden fleece – the wool trade that made Australia rich. Britain was then a guaranteed market for Australian wool, as it had been for decades, and Jack’s wool clip, as well as his sales of lamb to the abattoirs, kept his property going.
I remember sitting under a tree with him and another man as they pondered the question of whether there is any other creature that gets treated as badly as sheep do. Both agreed they wouldn’t want to be a sheep on an Australian grazing property.
They get terrorised by sheep dogs, dragged around and lacerated by shearers, spend freezing nights after the early shearing with no wool to cover them, and, if sold, get crammed into livestock transport where, if they slip, they get trampled and have their legs broken.
It’s all so different from John’s picture of Jesus, the Good Shepherd.
The image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is, of all the pictures of Jesus, the best loved. It draws not only on what people knew of shepherds in Israel – who bore a much closer image to the Scottish shepherd of my comic book than to an Australian grazier – but also to something woven into the fabric of the Old Testament scriptures.
Israel was a pastoral rather than an agricultural country. The main part of Judaea was a plateau - about 60 kilometres long and 25 kilometres wide. The ground was rough and stony, better suited to grazing than growing crops; and the most familiar figure was the shepherd
His life was hard. He was never off duty. There being little grass, the sheep were bound to wander, and since there were no protecting walls, the sheep had constantly to be watched. On either side of the narrow plateau the ground fell sharply to the craggy deserts and the sheep were always liable to stray away and get lost.
The shepherd's task was also dangerous. He had to guard the flock against wild animals, especially wolves, protect them from storm and tempest, and there were always thieves ready to steal the sheep.
That image was woven into the Old Testament, where God is often pictured as a shepherd and the people of Israel as his flock. We’re all familiar with passages like Psalm 23: ‘The Lord is my shepherd: I shall not want’ and Isaiah’s wonderful words: ‘He will feed his flock like a shepherd: he will gather the lambs in his arms, and will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.’
This picture passes over into the New Testament where Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd who goes out into the night to seek and to save the sheep that has got lost; who has pity upon the people because they are like sheep without a shepherd; and, most of all, is the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.
This is the theme of today’s Gospel reading. In particular, Jesus speaks of himself as ‘the gate for the sheep’ through which the sheep enter the safety of the fold and go out to find pasture.
He was using the analogy of a shepherd who in those days would lead the sheep into an enclosure made of rocks and branches each evening to protect them from marauders, and would then lie, himself, across the entrance as a human door to protect them from danger, and from there to lead them out next day to find new pastures.
And it was this that then led to one of the most memorable things he ever said. Speaking of a shepherd leading the sheep to life-giving pasture, he said: ‘that they may have life, and have it to the full.’
The theme of Jesus giving his people ‘abundant life’ or ‘life to the full’ is a theme that preachers have always loved to wax eloquent on.
But as I look around – and even at myself – I wonder where it is. Because, as a group, Christians often don’t seem to be all that different from everyone else – battling with anxiety and depression, chasing material things in the hope that they will bring happiness, ever looking for that elusive something that will make life complete.
I think we need to look much more carefully at this image of Jesus as our Good Shepherd who leads us to the life-giving pastures and ask ourselves what that really means for us.
I read somewhere that in the days of Oliver Cromwell, it became the custom to inscribe on the walls of English churches the words Think, not just about the problems that confront you, but of everything that you have going for you. And then, deliberately, give thanks.
It is a time-honoured message, the distilled wisdom of countless generations of spiritual people who learned that the act of thanksgiving is the most powerful stimulus we have for changing our mental attitude and improving our potential for joy.
I don’t want to trivialise the reality of pain. I know that a positive mental attitude is not the only factor in dealing with unhappiness and depression. Chemical imbalances, stress, blood sugar levels and such all have to be factored in. But what I am saying is that in the discipline of deliberate thanksgiving we have our most powerful resource for strengthening our faith and lifting our spirits.
Life is often discouraging, but the spiritual discipline of thanksgiving makes us look beyond our immediate problems and see the things we can be thankful for. And it raises the question of why we are so often discontented with our lot. Why don’t we think more often about the abundance of things we have going for us.
The philosopher Schopenhauer summed it up when he said: ‘We seldom think of what we have, but always of what we lack.’
Ingratitude is our great sin of omission. But over against it stands the eternal wisdom of the Bible which, time and again, calls on us to reflect on God’s loving kindness to us and to consciously give thanks. ‘Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you…’
So, when life is flowing along easily, give thanks. And when the going is tough, look around and remind yourself of all that you have going for you and again, give thanks. The older I get the more convinced I am that the discipline of thinking about what we have rather than what we lack, is the most powerful stimulus we have for changing our mental attitude and lifting ourselves from the gloom.
Perhaps in the end it is the poet who comes closer to the real meaning of life than any of us could; like these words of Courtland Sayers:
5,000 breathless dawns all new; 5,000 flowers fresh in dew.
5,000 sunsets wrapped in gold; 1 million snowflakes served ice cold.
5 quiet friends, 1 baby's love; 1 white sea with clouds above.
1 June night in a fragrant wood, 1 heart that loved and understood.
I wondered when I waked that day - in God's name--how could I ever pay.
Joe Wagner attended an auction where a little girl’s champion lamb went up for sale. As the bids came in, the little girl, standing beside the lamb, began to cry. The higher the bids rose, the more she cried. Finally, a local businessman bought the lamb for more than a thousand dollars, but then gave it back to the little girl; and everyone cheered. Months later, Joe was judging school essays and came across one from a girl who told about the time her champion lamb had been auctioned. "The prices began to get so high during the bidding," she wrote, "that I started to cry from happiness." Then she said: "The man who bought the lamb for much more than I ever dreamed I would get, gave it back to me, and when I got home, Daddy barbecued it. It was really delicious."
10 “Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” 6 Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them.
7 Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. 9 I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.[a] They will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.