Shepherds and Sheep
Our texts today refer to the relationship of sheep and their shepherds. In Psalm 23 we read perhaps the ultimate statement of individual intimacy with God and the comfort and protection offered by the divine shepherd. While it refers to troubles and the valley of death, it is more about God-centered living than about death. And in Mark, as in Matthew and Luke, we see God the Son as the compassionate shepherd who, even though he had been trying to avoid the crowds, could not turn his back on the people but taught them and healed them.
Let’s look at this image from both sides. There are sheep…and there are shepherds.
Sheep are simple animals who spend their days grazing on grass and growing long coats of hair which are later sheared off. Used for their wool, their milk, their hide, and their meat; they are of great value to their owners. Sheep have a strong flocking instinct finding the greatest safety in the center of the flock. Having no means of defence other than running away, sheep are easily startled, and when frightened don’t really pay attention to where they are going, getting easily caught in brambles or finding themselves separated from the group. Lost sheep have a much lower chance of survival and need to be returned to the herd quickly.
Are we like sheep? In our readings today the sheep in the texts were metaphors for the people of God. In Psalm 23 we are grateful sheep, given rest and comfort and assured of the continued presence and guidance of the greatest shepherd. In Mark we are the crowd, or the flock, seeking Jesus and his presence, teaching and healing.
Shepherds make their living by tending to the sheep. They are responsible for making sure that the sheep are well fed, kept safe from predators, that ewes give birth safely, and making sure that none of the sheep get lost or stolen. Shepherds live with the stock, they do not just put them in pens and go into nice cozy houses for the nights. It is lonely work with no vacation days and certainly no storm days. For these people, the sheep come first, they are their primary concern. Think about the human shepherds in the Bible. Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and King David all worked as shepherds of real sheep. They also all made great contributions to the advancement and well-being of the Israelites.
Why skip over the stories of the feeding of the 5000 and Jesus walking on water? These are both great examples of shepherding. Jesus provided good grazing, if you will, for the people who had gathered around him and he walked out onto the water when he saw that his disciples were straining at the oars on their boat. These are big front-page stories and risk taking the focus off of Jesus’ compassion. We are not just an employer’s sheep here; we are his own sheep whom he loves.
Being of the television generation, several mental pictures immediately spring up when discussing sheep and shepherds. First is the series of cartoons with the wolf and the big sheepdog checking in on their time clocks and heading out to work, the wolf to try to catch and kill the sheep, and the dog to protect them. The second is of Babe the pig herding the sheep in the sheepdog competition into separate pens by communicating with them in their own terms. He knew the magic words…”Baa-ram-ewe”
What dangers do we need our shepherd to protect us from? We could list hundreds of temptations, and dangers such as muggings etc here, but the only real danger is that we become separated from God. Sin separates us from God and so we need the shepherd to steer us away from sinful things…to keep us on the straight path.
God sent Jesus to live among us as one of us just as the sheepdogs and Babe did. Jesus knew our own language. He knew what we were going through because he lived it. People could feel this, perhaps the reason he drew such large crowds of people wherever he went. He knew the magic words. He was one of us, not trying to make himself much more than us.
A shepherd is a guide. If you have travelled to new places at all you will realize how much easier it is to get around, how much more comfortable you feel, with a guide who knows the area. Whether this be a jungle safari or a trip to the Montreal Jazz Festival, it is easier to take in the event when someone else is taking charge of keeping you from straying off. Someone who has been there before.
God knew this and planned to give us just this sort of guide. Jesus is such a good shepherd because he also has been a sheep. While Jeremiah foretells the shepherd, John 1:36 refers to Jesus as, “God’s Passover Lamb” and Acts 8:32, “As a sheep led to slaughter, and quiet as a lamb being sheared,” Lambs are used to symbolize innocence and only perfect lambs were acceptable for sacrifice to God in the Old Testament. He has been here before and He knows the way. It is for us to put our faith in Him and follow in his ways.
Psalm 23 The Gospel- Mark 6: 30-34, 53-56