I went to a college once that operated a small farm. We grew tomatoes, peanuts, sugar cane, and corn. We also raised a few cows, a couple dozen pigs, goats, and some sheep. And by “we” I meant the college hired people to do most of the work. As full-time students, we only helped out here and there. Now when we read about shepherds and sheep in the bible, we often create a more appealing picture than one that’s realistic. Back at the farm in college, I could tell raising sheep was hard work. The sheep would graze all day long, but sometimes they would wander away, and need rescuing. Sheep aren’t very smart. And the smell, I leave that to your imagination! In Jesus’ time and in that part of the world, raising sheep is a common livelihood, a hard job and a hard way of life. When wealthy families owned sheep, it was probably more than one flock, and several hundred sheep at a time. So it was important to find really good shepherds for the job. But some took the job just for the money. They thought it was easy work. And in times of danger, they might run away to save themselves. For them, it was just a job.
“I am the good shepherd,” Jesus said. “A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” A good shepherd doesn’t run away when the wolf comes. That’s because he cared about the sheep more than the paycheck. I’m sure it would be different if he carried a shotgun. But in Jesus’ time, shepherds carried a staff, and maybe a sling shot and a knife. And I bet, when one wolf showed up, there were more of them close by.
But Jesus was speaking about God’s children, and shepherding God’s children means so much more. “I know [my sheep,] and [my sheep] know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” Jesus had a deeply personal and loving relationship with his Father, built on complete trust and obedience to his Father’s will. He wants to have the same relationship with us, that we place complete trust in him, and give of ourselves freely and generously in obedience to the Father. He showed us what real trust and obedience looks like when he embraced suffering and death on the cross to reconcile us to God. Jesus makes it clear that he has power to lay down his life, and to take it up again. His suffering and death on the cross were not done to him. Instead, he laid down his life because of his love for the Father, and because of his love for us.
The sheep hear the shepherd’s voice and they follow him. Jesus our shepherd calls us to put faith in him, and to freely embrace the Father’s will. He walks ahead of us and protects us from harm and danger. He nourishes us at his own table that we might share his very own life and come to know his Father’s love. The Good Shepherd’s job is hard work because God’s children need great care. They need nourishment to grow strong and become effective witnesses of God’s love to the world. At times they might wander away, and need rescuing. But Jesus the Good Shepherd is not in it for the money. His love for us is unconditional and unlimited. And only in him can we find salvation and healing. Peter says it in the first reading. “There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved.” So we listen for his voice, we his flock, and he our shepherd.
Rolo B Castillo © 2015