I Am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.
As we continue reflecting on our theme this week of “Go Like the Shepherds,” we pause to reflect on Jesus as our Shepherd. Jesus was very attune to the fact that so many people of His time were farmers. Sheep and shepherds were part of the culture. We know that people hired out shepherds to watch their sheep. Shepherds were not educated, they were nomadic, they worked for little money. They also probably were not very committed. While protecting the flock from wolves, I would think that shepherds would probably draw the line on how much they were willing to do for the flock. If many wolves attacked the flock, the shepherds would scatter. In fact, Jesus says in John 10:12-13: “He who is a hireling and not a shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hireling and cares nothing for the sheep.” Those who watch the sheep, in the words of Jesus, are just hirelings, who are in it for money, not for care of the sheep. If their life is threatened, there would be no loyalty to anyone but themselves.
Jesus, on the other hand, is the Good Shepherd, a shepherd who is willing to lay down his life for the sheep. In Matthew 7:13-14, Jesus talks about the narrow gate when He says, “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” The sheep pens, where the sheep would sleep at night, were often built against steep mountainsides. They were surrounded by a fence and there was one gate by which the sheep could enter. These precautions would be taken to keep the wolves from attacking the flock of sheep. The gate would be narrow, let’s say six feet wide, a distance that could be protected by one shepherd. Once the sheep were in the pen, the gate would be closed, and the shepherd would stand guard at the gate. If a flock of wolves attacked, the shepherd might be tempted to flee. After all, what good would the wages of being a shepherd be if the shepherd was not alive to use them. Jesus said He would lay down His life for the sheep. He would essentially be willing to lay across the gate of the sheep pen so no wolf could get in and destroy the sheep.
The people of that time would have understood these analogies to gates, and sheep pens, shepherds and wolves. In modern context, where we do not generally live in an agrarian society, we still can benefit from understanding that Jesus is the good shepherd. Remember that we are all sheep of His flock, rational sheep who do not need to be cajoled or beaten into submission. We do sometimes lose our way, and sometimes are unsure of where we are going, so we do need guidance, specifically the guidance of our Shepherd, Jesus Christ. We are constantly under threat of attack from “wolves” and we need the protection afforded to us by Christ. Just as Jesus said in the Gospel, the gate to the sheep pen is indeed narrow. Which is why we have to be in the line of sheep to safely enter into the gate. This gate is both the safe passage through life and the entrance into eternal life. A sheep that was not in the line would not get into the gate. A sheep that went astray from the flock would not be in line. Thus, we have to be part of a flock, the church, and we have to be “in line” so to speak with the teachings of Christ, not doing our own thing, going astray from the flock.
There is one other component that we don’t speak of enough. We also have a role in bringing others to the flock. The stray sheep, those who are not with the flock, those who are not in the line, these are especially vulnerable to attack. And because we are rational sheep, as opposed to irrational sheep that wouldn’t have the makeup to do this, we are supposed to be able to help those who are astray join the flock. We are supposed to join the flock not because we are being cajoled to, but because we see value in being part of the flock of Christ and looking to Him as our shepherd. And because we hopefully see value in this, we want to share this value with others that are not yet part of the flock, or who are but have gone, or are going, astray.
Today the Virgin gives birth to the Maker of the universe. Eden offers a cave, and a star announces Christ, the Sun to those in darkness. Magi were illumined by faith and came and worshiped Him with gifts. Shepherds saw the wonder, as Angels were singing: “Glory in the highest to God!” (Aposticha, Vespers of the Nativity, Trans. by Fr. Seraphim Dedes)
Personal Reflection Point: What surprises you about how Jesus describes Himself as a shepherd?