I would like to begin this morning by reading the Twenty-third Psalm from the King James Version, because it is the version that we know best.
1The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
3He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
4Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
5Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
6Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.
, King James Version
It’s a commonly held belief that sheep are dumb animals. This belief has given rise to the phrase “to fleece,” which is used in reference to stealing from a person who is unaware of what is taking place.
With our common presuppositions about sheep, could it be that Jesus is insulting us by calling us sheep?
Before we go looking for a new metaphor, one that may seem a bit less derogatory, perhaps we should first reconsider the reputation of sheep. Are they really as dumb as we’ve been led to believe? Could it be that they’ve just gotten bad press?
This seems to be the case. Apparently sheep have had their reputations smeared by cattle ranchers. As you may know from watching westerns on TV, cattle-ranchers hate sheep and their herders with a passion. Ranchers, who are predisposed to cattle, decided that sheep are dumb because sheep don’t act like cattle. For instance, when you herd cattle, you drive them from behind by whooping and hollering and cracking whips. If you try this with sheep, they’ll just circle around you. It seems you can’t drive sheep; you have to lead them. Sheep won’t go anywhere unless they know that there is someone out in front making sure that everything is okay. So who are the dumb ones?
1. HEARING THE VOICE OF THE GOOD SHEPHERD
Sheep and shepherds are prominent images in Scripture. Jacob, Moses, and David were all shepherds, and according to Luke, shepherds were the first people to receive the message of Jesus’ birth. In John 10 we find a series of statements from the lips of Jesus, in which he describes himself as the Good Shepherd (Jn 10:11). There is a good reason why all these biblical characters were shepherds, and why sheep figure so prominently in biblical imagery: Sheep were, after all, the primary form of livestock in Palestine. It’s important to also note that the people of Israel didn’t consider them to be stupid. They knew what sheep were capable of and so they didn’t take offense at being called sheep.
In this morning’s text, Jesus lifts up a specific attribute of sheep – they can recognize the voice of their shepherd. Not only that, but they will only follow the voice of that one shepherd. The reason sheep will only respond to the voice or call of their own shepherd is because they know that they can count on their shepherd to keep them safe. When danger comes, they won’t run off like the hireling. Therefore, sheep get very attached to their shepherds.
Barbara Brown Taylor tells of a conversation with a friend who grew up around sheep. Her friend told her that “he could walk right through a sleeping flock without disturbing a single one of them, while a stranger could not step foot in the fold without causing pandemonium.” If you meet up with a group of Bedouins today at an oasis in the Middle East you will see a scene very similar to what was common in first century Palestine. Although several flocks might gather at the same watering hole, the Bedouin shepherds don’t try to keep them apart, because when the shepherd is ready to leave, he or she gives off a distinctive call or whistle and the flock gathers to that shepherd. Taylor writes: “They know whom they belong to; they know their shepherd’s voice, and it is the only one they will follow.”* It would seem that sheep aren’t all that dumb after all; they know whom they can trust and whom not to trust, and they respond only to that one voice. If, then, we are part of Jesus’ flock, then we’ll recognize his voice and follow him.
In our day there are many voices calling out to us. They appeal to our emotions, our needs, our desires, our pride., and our fears They prey upon our sense of rootlessness, that nomadic spirit that has infected our age. And into this spiral of confusion, we hear Jesus saying to us: “My sheep hear my voice, I know them, and they follow me” (Jn. 10:27).
2. THE CARE OF THE SHEPHERD
Despite the bad press that sheep tend to receive, the reason we’re attracted to the images of sheep and shepherd, is that they provide us with a sense of comfort and well-being. This sensibility is reinforced by the 23rd Psalm, which begins with the line: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” By describing himself as the Good Shepherd, Jesus takes over the imagery of the Psalm, imagery that is used by the Psalmist to describe Yahweh’s relationship to the people of God. Indeed, in John’s account, Jesus goes so far as to say: “the Father and I are one.” That is, when you think of the Lord being your shepherd, think also of Jesus, because they are of one purpose.
As we ponder the meaning of the claim put on the lips of Jesus, “I am the Good Shepherd,” it would be appropriate for us to consider how this Psalm defines what that means. We love this Psalm because it speaks of God’s comforting presence in difficult times. We love the images of green pastures and still waters, because they speak of peacefulness and serenity. But, earlier readers of the Psalm likely would have heard something different. They would have heard a word about God’s provision for his people. Green pastures suggest food and still waters a safe place to drink, things that sheep living in a desert climate couldn’t take for granted. They trusted the shepherd to scout out and find food and water for them. They also had confidence that when trouble came, the shepherd would protect them.
The traditional rendering of verse 4 of Psalm 23 says: “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.” It is this verse that leads so many people to choose it for funerals, but a better translation of the verse would be:
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff — they comfort me.
The sheep have confidence that when they walk through even the darkest valley, their shepherd, armed with rod and staff, will not let anything happen to them. They will make it through the difficult times that face them. If God is our shepherd, we need not fear, for God stands with us.
3. RESPONDING TO THE MESSIAH
This discussion of the Good Shepherd comes in the midst of a discussion about the identity of the Messiah. The religious leaders of the day couldn’t accept Jesus in this role, because he didn’t act as they expected a Messiah to act. In John’s account, Jesus responds by telling them that their opposition stems from the fact that they’re simply not his sheep. If they had been his sheep, they would have known his voice, and responded to his promise of protection and security. I should point out here that there is another audience in mind as well – it’s the opponents of the Beloved Disciple. There was division in that early Christian community, and the one who wrote this account is speaking to them, calling on them to heed the voice of Jesus that came through him. Who is the Messiah, the one sent from God, the one who will speak a word of comfort, of challenge, and guidance? And will we know this voice?
Although we hear a word of comfort in the image of the Good Shepherd that doesn’t seem to be the point that John wants to make. He places this image in the midst of a discussion that Jesus has with these opponents that continue to question his authority to speak. So, when we hear Jesus talking about heeding the voice of the shepherd, he’s talking about allegiance, loyalty, and a willingness to follow.
There are many voices in the world that are calling out to us. The question is, which one will we hear and abide? I think sometimes we falter in our allegiance because we’re fearful. Maybe we’re afraid that God won’t come through in our time of need, and so we switch our allegiance to the one who promises us peace and security. And, in every age there are demagogues promising us peace and security, if only we will follow them. It’s tempting to listen and follow, but will these voices lead us through the darkest valleys?
Our hope lies in hearing and following the Messiah of God, the one who is the Good Shepherd. If we’re to do this, then it’s important to get to know this Shepherd’s voice, to learn the uniqueness of his call. This involves all of the Christian practices – prayer, study, meditation, conversation, listening, worshiping. Yes, sheep get lost only when they stop listening for the shepherd’s voice, and this happens when the sheep lose contact with the shepherd.
Remember the sheep have confidence in the shepherd because the shepherd has been there for them, and the same is true of us. Without taking exclusivist detours that build fences to keep others out of the conversation, there is in John’s message, the reminder that through an act of grace, God seeks out God’s sheep. Therefore, if we hear the Shepherd’s voice calling out to us, if we’re willing to attune ourselves to the Shepherd’s voice, then we can have confidence when we walk through the darkest of valleys of life, whether they are sickness, loss of jobs, a disaster, or death of a loved one. We have this confidence because we know that in Jesus, God has already gone before us and scouted out the path. If we stick close to him, we will make it through safely. That doesn’t mean that the wolves won’t nip at our heels, but the Lord is with us, to lead us safely through the danger.
*Barbara Brown Taylor quoted in Pulpit Resource, 29 (April, May, June 2001): 30.