If we were to ask each other – What is a shepherd? We would probably all reply: Someone who looks after sheep. Perhaps our experience of shepherding is of sheep dog trials on TV, or perhaps of walking in the Lake District where for centuries dogs have been used to bring the sheep down from the hills about 3 times each year. Although when I last saw a shepherd gathering his flock on a Scottish hillside, he was riding a quad bike and the sheep dog was hitching a ride on the back!
To understand today’s gospel passage, it helps to hear the story of a day in the life of a shepherd in the Middle East. And not just the Middle East today, although things still happen this way in some places, but we need to go back to Jesus’ time – what was the life of a shepherd like then?
Every morning, just as it was getting light, the shepherd walked from his home to the sheepfold. The sheepfold could have been an area of hillside with quite high walls round it and no roof. This provided a safe place where several flocks of sheep were kept for the night. They were guarded by a gate-keeper, so they could sleep safely and be unmolested by wild animals roaming in the dark of night. As the shepherd arrived at the sheepfold in the growing light, the gatekeeper recognised him as being the true shepherd of one of the flocks of the sheep in the fold. So the gatekeeper opened the gate of the sheepfold to let him in. The shepherd then called out to his own sheep. He used his voice so that those sheep who knew him recognised the voice of their own shepherd. Then they gladly followed him out onto the hillside to begin their day. The shepherd didn’t have nearby fields surrounded by walls and hedges to put the sheep into for the day, but instead he led them across several miles of wild grassland, choosing the safe path, making sure each sheep could keep up. Towards mid-day he found the watering place, and selected a good area for the sheep to rest during the heat of the day.
Then, as the temperature dropped, he called them again, leading them on to more grassland that was good for sheep to eat. Eventually, as evening fell, he led them back to the safety of the sheepfold for the night.
This day-long walkabout happened every day. The shepherd always led the sheep, he walked in front of his flock, whereas in this country sheep are driven from behind. The sheep could be led because they recognised the voice of the shepherd. They trusted their own shepherd because they experienced his care for them. The shepherd came to know his own sheep very well. He knew their different characters; the ones likely to run away, whom he needed to call often to keep them with the flock. He knew the one that might cause trouble, bully the others. He knew the ones that were weak, the one or two he would need to carry for part of the day. The whole of the shepherd’s care was concentrated on his sheep. So the sheep thrived under the care of the good shepherd.
In our gospel reading, Jesus likens himself to this good shepherd. Why does he use this particular picture? Seeing shepherds leading their sheep was a common sight in Palestine in the time of Jesus. It was an ongoing daily and yearly routine that people were very familiar with. Perhaps some of the children Jesus grew up with were shepherds. Also the theme of sheep and shepherds is a very strong one throughout the bible. Most of us know and love the 23rd Psalm which begins: The Lord is my Shepherd. It was written by David as a shepherd 1,000 years before Jesus. Psalm 23 gives a wonderful picture of his own personal experience of God’s care for him, God, whom David calls: My shepherd. You have a copy of this psalm to take home and think about. Let’s look at it for a few minutes.
With the Lord as his shepherd, David will not want for anything. He is satisfied with what God supplies, with God’s care. He paints a lovely word picture of the resting place God supplies; in green pastures, beside still waters; away from the turbulence and fear of danger. A place of plenty to eat and drink.
So David feels he is led to a place of peace, he is restored within himself. His shepherd leads him in the right paths, safe paths, so that he can follow his shepherd in the way he knows is best for him. David lived through experiences he describes as valleys, where the shadow of death and darkness surrounds him. Even here he is not afraid, because God his shepherd is walking with him. And then even in times of threat and danger, David is provided for; not just necessities, but with the abundance of a feast provided by the shepherd even within sight of his enemies. From his experience of God, David knows that God will show goodness and mercy towards him for the rest of his life. In the last verse of this psalm David expresses his greatest longing that comes in several psalms: he yearns to dwell in the house of the Lord for ever; he wants to be in God’s presence every day for the whole of his life. This is the psalm that talks of the peace and plenty that comes from being in God’s care. This is the psalm that so many people love to say in times of loss, of difficulty. At the core of this psalm is the intimate relationship between the shepherd and his own individual sheep.
This is Jesus’ thought as he speaks to those around him. He now reveals God as David’s good shepherd. He is the good shepherd that everyone who follows him needs. But Jesus adds another picture of himself. A picture that brings his message, his gospel, his good news, right to the core of why he has come into the world. He says: I am the gate for the sheep. Why do we need Jesus as gate? A gate is a place to go in and go out. It’s a place for dividing the outside from the inside. It can be a barrier, or a provision for safety. We have airport gates – often places of long and uncomfortable waiting! Some of us regularly go through turnstile gates to football matches! Jesus says he is the gate for salvation. People who enter through him as gate are ‘saved’. The gate that is Jesus is a barrier, but it is a barrier that is easily opened by believing in him, by accepting his love, by coming into relationship with him. Jesus’ invitation to go through this gate is always on offer. It is a gate that is never locked to those who want to come to him.
And a gate must have ‘the other side’. What is the other side of this gate? Jesus says that whoever knows him as the gate, will be saved, and will be able to go in and out and find pasture. We are saved from the old inherited pattern of life, the fears, the guilt, the constant worries of having to save ourselves, to appear better than we know we are.
Jesus as the gate saves us from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom he brought, into the kingdom of God, where our relationship with God our Father is restored through him, where we have certain hope of life with Jesus for ever, where we are accepted and loved just as we are, and where we can catch glimpses of resurrection life in our daily lives. On the other side of this gate is the abundant life we have in Jesus: ordinary life with all the plusses of knowing Jesus; of knowing his love, his guiding, his protection. The one who provides our needs, in whom we can feel satisfied. The one who longs to be, the one who loves to be, shepherd and saviour to each one of us.
But the life with Jesus as Shepherd isn’t idyllic, it isn’t easy or uncontested. Twice in the verses from John’s gospel Jesus mentions thieves and bandits. He also mentions strangers who don’t know the sheep. The thieves and bandits are out to destroy the sheep, to do them harm. In this context this probably refers to the Jewish leaders who don’t recognise Jesus as Son of God. But for us thieves and bandits can be anyone or anything that tries to take the place of Jesus in our lives; something that constantly distracts us from following him, something that leads us down wrong paths, away from what he knows is best for us.
In contrast, our good shepherd is active in keeping his own sheep with him. In the sacrificial love of his crucifixion, in the power and the vibrant and abundant life of his resurrection, he calls each one of us to follow him where he leads, so that day by day by day we will learn to know his voice, that we will recognise his leading and his loving.