In the 1980s, my family and I lived in the Holy Land, in Bethlehem. We had the opportunity to observe many shepherds herding their sheep. Some gently and carefully led their sheep. Others drove the sheep, angrily hitting them with a rod. The good shepherds stood out.
Throughout scripture, the image of a shepherd is a positive one. God, kings, Moses and other leaders are described as shepherds in their care of the people. A few minutes ago, we heard this imagery in the 23rd Psalm.
In today’s gospel, we see the tender relationship of Jesus and his sheep. The shepherd initiates contact with the sheep. They don’t have to go off in search of a shepherd. He comes to them.
Often, the sheep of more than one shepherd would be enclosed in the same pen. But In the morning, when it is time for the sheep to be separated and taken out to graze, the shepherd would call his sheep out of the combined flock by name. Each shepherd could identify his sheep.
Can you imagine that?
Sometimes, it’s hard enough for us to identify our children or grandchildren in a sea of faces. But trying to find one particular sheep, they look so much alike! How do you find that special one?
The shepherd invests time and effort in his relationship with the sheep. He knows them by name and can call them out of a crowd; and the sheep know the shepherd’s voice. This maintains their special relationship. This takes effort and attention.
Sheep may not be the brightest animals, but they recognize the voice of their shepherd; and they will follow his voice!
Recognizing the shepherd’s voice demonstrates the intimacy of relationship between shepherd and sheep. Because of this intimacy, the sheep trust and follow their shepherd.
Jesus, as the Good Shepherd invests such time and attention to develop such an intimate relationship with us. He knows us by name, but he knows us far more deeply. He knows the secrets of our hearts. Knowing the shepherd’s voice means far more than simply recognizing Jesus’ voice. It implies a deep bond, attachment and connection. Without that, a sheep may follow the wrong voice and get lost and hurt.
Do we know Jesus’ voice?
Do we know him enough to trust him?
Do we trust Jesus enough to do what he says and follow him to a safe place or pasture?
We can hear many voices in our lives. Many of them will try to contradict what Jesus is telling us. Many of them will tell us that another way is safer, easier, richer…
Many of these voices belong to thieves, sheep stealers or any who try to deceptively lead us astray. These people have hidden agendas. They take for themselves without much thought about what others are losing.
The sheep desperately need to be led and to follow their shepherd. And so do we. But not by simple blindness, but by following Jesus through faith, trust, and love.
The landscape of the Holy Land is harsh, rough and rocky. One can easily stumble. The shepherd’s job is to know the landscape in a way the sheep cannot—to be aware of both sources of sustenance and of danger that the sheep cannot—to be trustworthy, loyal and caring in a way sheep stealers are not. That’s what it means to lead the sheep. I find this image comforting. When things seem out of control in our lives and we do not know which way to go, knowing that Jesus is going before us and that we are not alone changes everything.
In the second half of our reading, Jesus calls himself the gate. He issues an invitation, promising salvation, nurture and abundant life to all who pass through the Jesus-gate. It is Jesus as the gate that first offers salvation. Jesus is the way in and out of the sheepfold. The shepherd is the gate to shepherding. Our Christ-gate is the promise of both security and freedom. Our place in the sheepfold and our identity as a member of the flock is determined by our relationship to Jesus as the gate.
Jesus declared, “I am the Gate. Anyone who goes through me will be cared for—will freely go in and out, and find pasture.
A thief is only there to steal and kill and destroy. I came so they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of” (vv. 9-10).
This is a promise Jesus gives us for our lives today—not something that can only be experienced after death. Jesus is the passageway through whom we can find abundant life. This does not mean that the one with the most toys has the most abundant life. It refers to the quality of life that comes through attachment to Jesus.
The life Jesus speaks of is exceptional life. According to the Greek, it is more than expected—outstanding, remarkable and unusual. Aren’t these interesting adjectives to describe the life Jesus offers us?
The “more and better life” Jesus gives speaks of is one of abundance in relational, not material terms.
More and better life looks different in different places and to different people, but it always manifests itself as a response to whatever seeks to rob the children of God of their inheritance of life, purpose and joy.
There are many voices out there with their siren songs trying to draw us to follow them. They call our name, but their promises are hollow. They don’t care about us.
How can we recognize and respond to the voice of Jesus calling our name? Spend time with him in prayer. Read his word. The more we develop our relationship with Jesus, the better able we will be to distinguish his voice from all the others in our noisy world. We’ll have to listen for it, but we will hear it.
Jesus issues us a profound invitation not to simply listen to his promises of salvation and abundant life, but to live in it; and share it with others.
How can we do this? By becoming part of Jesus’ mission to bring abundant life to all God’s children. This means we need to pay attention to what is robbing God’s children near us of life and then stand with them against those forces so that they may have, not just life, but more and better life.
Salvation isn’t only the forgiveness of sin, but it’s also being commissioned by Jesus to help others experience abundant life whatever their circumstances.
The church isn’t only the place where we go to hear about this life, but the place that sends us out to experience and share it with all God’s children and the world God loves so much (David Lose).