One problem with the many references to sheep in the Bible is that so few of us have any real contact with these animals. The metaphor is simply lost on us. What does it mean to be compared to sheep? The little we’ve heard or read about them—that they’re not particularly bright—does not endear us to the metaphor. But here’s the thing about Good Shepherd Sunday: it’s not about sheep at all. It is about a shepherd—the “Good Shepherd”—but even that designation is charged with meanings that can be lost on us.
“I am the good shepherd,” says Jesus. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).
The life of a shepherd was anything but dreamy or picturesque. Taking care of sheep was dangerous, difficult, tedious work. Shepherds were, as one commentator has said, “rough around the edges, spending time in the fields rather than in polite society. For Jesus to say, ‘I am the good shepherd,’would have been an affront to the religious elite. The claim had an edge to it. A modern-day equivalent might be for Jesus to say, ‘I am the good migrant worker.”
So John is doing in his gospel something that Luke does in his. Recall the Good Samaritan: Jesus tells a parable about a man mugged in the street and left for dead. Two members of Israel’s spiritual elite—a priest and a Levite—pass him by and hurry on their way. But a Samaritan—considered unclean and morally suspect—binds the man’s wounds, pays for his care, helps restore him to health.
Jesus makes a Samaritan the hero of the story, something that would have scandalized his hearers. His basic message is not: be kind; help others (which is what we’ve reduced the parable to). His message is this: the Kingdom comes in surprising ways, through surprising people, through a God who turns our expectations and our prejudices upside down.
The Good Samaritan. The Good Shepherd. Those who are lowly, dubious, suspicious, contemptuous; those discounted, counted out: pay attention to these—God is probably at work in their midst. The Good Samaritan gives of himself fully to save a stranger. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
How are we, disciples of the Good Shepherd, to lay down our lives? When we listen to another’s opinion instead of stubbornly clinging to our own; when we sow unity instead of seeds of discord; when we gently bring others to honesty about self and how they are living; and when we build others up rather than tear them down. In these and a myriad of ways we incarnate the Good Shepherd’s love.