So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. 11 I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.” – John 10:7-18
I have had one significant experience with sheep, and although it was decades ago, I still remember it vividly. We had been invited to visit a ranch in Wyoming where I did my vicarage (internship). The ranch sprawling – more than 100,000 acres. We were there to watch the sheep be sheared and to help cut and brand the new calves in their cattle herd. But rain loomed on the horizon and they needed to get the sheep indoors so their wool would not get too wet. But the sheep would not cooperate, refusing to go into the barn. After several attempts to get them to go through the door into the dark barn, one of the ranch hands managed to get one of the sheep through the opening. In a matter of seconds the entire herd – about 100 sheep – were inside, having followed the first one in. No thought. Just follow the herd. Sheep truly are not intelligent animals.
How is it, therefore that Jesus is willing to call himself the Good Shepherd, likening us, therefore, to sheep? It’s not immediately obvious that this is a compliment. Add to that our willfulness. It seems that we are willful to a fault. We’re not just ignorant. We may stumble into a blessing or two over time. But too often we are willfully pursuing interests that are anything but good.
That is why it is such Good News that Jesus is the Good Shepherd. He will never lead us astray. He will call us to follow him, even to deny our own wellbeing in order to do so. But he promises good pasture and provides an overflowing fountain of life. Others are not so good. Promising quick and easy goods, they will never stick around when we discover that they have led us astray. Consider this, furthermore, the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, but it is not a futile sacrifice. He not only lays down his life, he takes it up again, and lives as our eternal Good Shepherd leading us home to God.
I’m not sure I can leave behind my willfulness. I’m not inclined to be in the docile mode of sheepishness. But if I can slow down enough to listen for the voice of the Good Shepherd, I will be the better for it.