Old Testament Reading- Psalm 23 New Testament Reading- John 10:11-18
By Henry J. Rafferty CLP -April 25, 2021
Can you spot all four shepherds in the above photo?
There once was a wealthy and powerful man who owned thousands of acres of land. Land of all kinds, arid plains, rocky hillsides, fertile valleys, green meadows, and lush forests. This man was not a greedy and uncaring man, but one that took pleasure and responsibility in helping and caring for others. The land that he owned could support many thousands of people and their families were welcome to work the land and share in the harvest of crops fruits, as well as the production of juice and wine from the miles and miles of vineyards. Animals were also raised on the land: cattle, horses, donkey, fowl, goats, and sheep. These animals provided food, milk, eggs, materials for making clothing, and some were used as beasts of burden to help work the fields and to be used to haul carts and wagons. I should also not forget to mention that the wealthy man’s extensive lands also included streams, rivers, and lakes full of fresh water and teeming with fish.
There are many jobs on a property this large, but we will be talking today about tending sheep. First, we must understand that sheep are a domesticated farm animal that provides wool for making clothing, milk-for drinking and for making cheese, and meat for consumption. There are actually many more products that come from sheep, as nothing is wasted, but we will keep it short. Needless to say, sheep are very valuable. Secondly, we must understand that sheep are living beings and are to be treated humanely, they are not inanimate objects placed here for our misuse.
Like many agricultural jobs raising sheep can be done right and it can be done wrong. Sheep can just as easily live on their own, they are not stupid as some would have you believe, and they have the ability to live and raise their young in some of the most unhospitable environments anywhere. The farmer does not need to help the animal to live as much as they are trying to help the sheep to live better, and there by, increasing the size of the flock. An increased flock of sheep means more sheep products for the growing amount of people in the land. This is farming, farmers don’t create, they cultivate, they domesticate, they take of what is and help it increase in quality and numbers to provide the greatest number of resources for people and their families.
This particular wealthy landowner in our story just happens to be very fond of sheep, not that he doesn’t care for all the other things, but for purposes of this story, sheep are at the top of the list. This landowner is very busy, so he decides to hire a shepherd to tend his flock. To be a shepherd is a great responsibility, but not a glamorous job, by any means. A shepherd must be caring, gentle, and kind with the animals, but they must also be a quick and decisive thinker in times of trouble. A shepherd must also be part of the flock, and this is what I mean by that. Sheep are gregarious animals and because they are grazers, they must be in open spaces feeding most of the time. This increases their exposure to predators, so they find that living in a flock allows for increased ability to avoid being eaten. Many ears, eyes, and noses can detect a wolf much better than just one or two sheep. Because of this gregarious nature though, it is vital that the shepherd become part of the flock. Sheep have a tendency to follow the leader and it is therefore important that the shepherd be the leader. Remember, left on their own, sheep will survive, but not always reach their full potential. If the shepherd wants to be the leader of the flock, they will need to first get the sheep to trust them. They do this by feeding them, especially by hand, and even better if they are yet lambs. Once the sheep trust the shepherd, they will follow them anywhere. A good shepherd will lead his flock throughout the year to the greenest pastures, but they cannot overgraze each pasture, or they could ruin its regrowth. The shepherd must know just how much is not too much before they move to somewhere else. They must know the best places to take the flock in the spring for the lambs to be born and they must find, inspect, and introduce themselves to each new lamb. They must know where the salt licks are found on the rocky walls of the hills for the sheep to lick, thereby providing needed minerals they could not get from their diets to fend off diseases and allowing for better physical growth. A shepherd also knows where the best and safest water is to be found and how often the sheep should go to it. Lastly a good shepherd knows which poisonous weeds to keep the flock from eating and they will fend off predators.
As I said before, this landowner hires a shepherd and soon his flocks increase so that he must employ many shepherds. Not all shepherds are good shepherds. Some appear like great shepherds in front of the landowner but are lazy and brutal towards the flock once the landowner is out of sight. Others are mediocre, disinterested, or unable to gain the trust of the sheep, thereby allowing the sheep to revert to their natural ways. Some are good shepherds in every way, except when the wolf prowls, they are more afraid than the sheep and the losses take their toll on the flock.
Soon the landowner is concerned for his flock, he just can’t seem to find anyone who is perfect for the job, so he decides to send someone that came from him, that knows what he knows, and that cares for the flock as much as him. One that he can send to do the job right and to be an example to others. The landowner decides to send his son. The son is sent to the choicest flock and other people are sent with him to observe and to learn. The people are amazed at how gentle and caring the shepherd is with the sheep. In spring he finds all the newborn lambs and even helps some of the ewes when they are giving birth. He always has a pocket full of grain that he feeds the lambs and the sheep. The flock gives their whole trust to him and he does not lead them astray, and all the sheep know his voice and follow when called to the best pastures. Leaving each pasture at the proper times, freshly fertilized, thanks to the grazing sheep, and ready to sprout out more leafy greens for the next time around. The springs that he finds are of the clearest waters, filled with minerals and it cools as it goes down the throat on a hot summer day. He carries a rod and a staff to gently guide and correct the flock to keep them from harm and to keep them on his path, not to mistreat or punish them as other shepherds have done. This shepherd loves and understands his sheep and is not harsh with them just because they don’t always understand his commands, but gently prods them, if needs be, to guide them on the straight paths to their desired destination.
One night, while all the sheep were resting, he sat by his small fire and prepared his evening meal. By the light of the fire, he could see the eyes in the distance, sizing up the flock and the shepherd. He listened intently for any sounds that would tell him the number of hungry mouths waiting in the darkness. Suddenly, a wolf sprang from the shadows toward the nearest lamb. The shepherd rose to his full height and charged the beast raising his arms and yelling in his loudest voice. Maybe the wolf was wrong, maybe this shepherd was not like the others. This wild man charged the wolf, giving it quite a fright. “Not tonight,” thought the wolf.
Some years pass by and the little flock is growing by leaps and bounds, so much so, that the shepherd is allowing his apprentices to perform some of the functions for the flock that he once did. They are doing well and as the years go by the landowner inspects the flock regularly and is most pleased with everything and the performance of his son. Day by day goes by and the shepherd and his growing number of apprentices do their best for the flock. In the evenings, the shepherd and the apprentices sit around the fire, talking and watching the eyes in the firelight. One of the apprentices asks the shepherd what he would do if too many wolves came for the flock. The shepherd looked him straight in the eyes and told him without hesitation; “I would die for the flock.” The next day the apprentices are speaking together about what the shepherd said the night before, when one said, “See, I told you. He will kill the wolves to save the sheep, even if he had to die trying.”
Autumn rolls on into winter and winter into spring again. The expanding flock is very well taken care of and the ewes are ready to give birth. This is a special time for the shepherd and his apprentices. A time for new life to begin and a time to gain the trust of that new life. The sheep trust the shepherd completely and would go anywhere he goes. They know he would never guide them in the wrong direction and that the shepherd is not only doing his job, but that he loves them and would do anything for them. Each night the eyes in the firelight increase in number and the men can all hear the snarls and growls, it is getting very unnerving, but the shepherd is calm and doesn’t seem to be too alarmed. Sometimes he will stride forward, arms waving in the air and his voice loudly calling out for them to be gone, but nothing more than this. The apprentices can’t help but wonder what is going to happen when the shepherd kills one of the wolves. Will the rest of the pack get the message?
It has been a busy week and many young have been born with very few losses when it comes to lambs and ewes. It is always a blessing to see these new young ones frolicking and playing in the meadows. It is also pleasing to the shepherd to see how well his apprentices are doing. They have learned much in the last few years and someday soon they will tend to flocks of their own. The shepherd is also pleased to know that his apprentices have learned the importance of loving their flocks. When the flock feels loved, safe, well-tended, and well-guided, it thrives and reaches its full potential for the landowner. Late one evening after all the talking and teaching was done, bellies fed, and everyone is toasty warm by the fire they all fall off to sleep, except the shepherd. The shepherd knows that the eyes in the firelight have been increasing for a reason and that it is now the time when the pack feels it is ready for its strike. Suddenly from multiple directions the members of the pack spring forward, teeth barred and mouths snarling. Before the apprentices could even awake and stand, the shepherd is striding forward. Now is the time, now the apprentices are going to see the full might of the shepherd. The sheep are all huddled together in fear and the apprentices are not too much different. Wolves are everywhere, and they are moving straight for the sheep, and especially the new-born lambs. The shepherd moves forward a steady purposeful stride, but this time is different. This time he doesn’t wave his arms and shout, but dives headlong without a sound into the path of the wolves. There are too many wolves, and the sheep would have been destroyed, maybe even the apprentices, if it were not for the shepherd. He met them head on and to the apprentice’s disbelief, the wolves diverted their attention from the sheep to the shepherd and they tore him to shreds. Their appetite for blood fully sated; the pack left as fast as they had come.
“What just happened?” The apprentices were dumbstruck, how could this have happened. They thought that he would direct the apprentices and they would fight the wolves together as a team. That is what they thought he meant when he said he would die for the sheep. What he did was altogether different. There were so many wolves that he sacrificed himself to the pack so that all would live, the sheep and the apprentices. This is what the good shepherd is all about, sacrifice and love.
This is what Jesus did for us, He is our good shepherd. He makes us lie down in green pastures, He leads us beside still waters, He refreshes our souls. Even though we will walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we will fear no evil, because He is with us. His rod and His staff, they comfort us, He does not beat us into submission or threaten us with punishment. He goes before us and makes all things new again, so that we may be where He is. This story is about us too. We are Christ’s apprentices, His disciples, His Church. We are tasked with being shepherds of His flock too and not only this flock, but flocks all over the world. All those that belong to Him will know His voice, help by being an amplifier to that voice, to show others the way even when the eyes multiply in the firelight. Our cup does truly overflow and surely goodness and love will follow us all the days of our lives, and with our good shepherd, we will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Thanks be to God. Amen.