“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. When the hired hand sees the wolf coming, he leaves the sheep and runs away. That’s because he isn’t the shepherd; the sheep aren’t really his. So, the wolf attacks the sheep and scatters them. He’s only a hired hand and the sheep don’t matter to him.
“I am the good shepherd. I know my own sheep and they know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. I give up my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that don’t belong to this sheep pen. I must lead them too. They will listen to my voice and there will be one flock, with one shepherd.
“This is why the Father loves me: I give up my life so that I can take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I give it up because I want to. I have the right to give it up, and I have the right to take it up again. I received this commandment from my Father.”
There was another division among the Jews because of Jesus’ words. Many of them said, “He has a demon and has lost his mind. Why listen to him?” Others said, “These aren’t the words of someone who has a demon. Can a demon heal the eyes of people who are blind?” (Common English Bible)
Many people in today’s urban and suburban world are completely unfamiliar with sheep and shepherds. So, when it comes to picturing Jesus as the good shepherd, idyllic scenes might come to mind, full of green meadows and pastoral landscapes, where there is perfect peace and rest, at all times.
Having been raised in rural Midwest America, I can confidently say there is little romanticism to the life of shepherds and sheep. Sheep eat a lot. They’ll eat just about anything that’s growing out of the ground. Think about how you would feel if you ate copious amounts of plants…. Lots of gas, trips to the bathroom, and stink.
That’s how it is with sheep. They continually poop and the smell is downright awful. A lot of a shepherd’s daily work is helping sheep deal with all the gas inside them. Sheep are easily prone to bloating from excess gas. This isn’t just an uncomfortable situation for a sheep; it’s an emergency life-and-death scenario. The shepherd must continually be vigilant to the sheep and take care of such circumstances immediately and carefully.
Taking care of sheep is dangerous, difficult, and tedious work. Historically, shepherds were rough characters, constantly on the move to find lush pastures for the flock’s voracious appetite. They had to deal with both animal and human predators looking for an easy meal. Being mostly outdoors, even at night, led to their reputation as drinkers – keeping up a consistent nip of spirits to remain warm. And, of course, they smelled bad.
So, when Jesus described himself as the “good shepherd,” this was anything but a pleasing picture for people in the ancient world. The closest equivalents to our modern day might be for Jesus to say, “I am the good migrant worker,” or the “good carny” (carnival employee).
Anyone or any profession in which we might deem a person in that line of work as of dubious character – that is precisely how a shepherd, and their work, were viewed by ancient people. It’s often the low-wage workers of society who get down and dirty. Because of their work, they get a suspicious and contemptuous reputation. Remarkably, Jesus unabashedly aligned himself with such people.
And yet, it is the discounted professions and the dismissed people from which we must pay attention; God is probably at work in their midst.
The despised Samaritan gained the label of “good” by Jesus for giving himself fully to save a stranger. Jesus puts the same adjective in front of shepherd. Whereas no one in polite society would use “good” for shepherd, Jesus labels himself as the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.
Jesus, this incredible figure who puts good and shepherd together, also goes out of his way to bring other sheep into his fold. Since Christ identifies himself as a stinky lowly shepherd, he has no problem connecting with everyone. After all, when one is already low, there’s no looking down on another.
People everywhere, no matter their station in life, can hear the voice of Jesus speaking to them when they, too, are low enough to be able to listen.
Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is also the sacrificial lamb. In laying down his life he takes it up again (John 10:17). And when we participate in that dying and rising, when we eat the bread and drink the cup of salvation, we know he abides in us(1 John 3:24). Remaining in Christ with our Good Shepherd means, we, too, lay down our lives:
This is how we’ve come to understand and experience love: Christ sacrificed his life for us. This is why we ought to live sacrificially for our fellow believers, and not just be out for ourselves.
If you see some brother or sister in need and have the means to do something about it but turn a cold shoulder and do nothing, what happens to God’s love? It disappears. And you made it disappear.
My dear children, let’s not just talk about love; let’s practice real love. This is the only way we’ll know we’re living truly, living in God’s reality. (1 John 3:16-18, MSG)
Community is messy. People are stinky. Stepping into another’s life is rarely picturesque or idyllic. Yet, it’s at the same time elegant and aromatic. For we discover that our old ideas of beauty are obsolete. We gain a new spiritual sense which is redolent with the fragrance of Christ.
O God, Shepherd of all your people, deliver us from all troubles, worries and cares that assail us so that we may always do what is pleasing in your sight, and remain safe in the care of our Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.