April 26, 2015 Psalm 23 John 10: 11-18
Rev. Catherine Purves
I learned something new this week. I was reading about our two Scripture passages for this fourth Sunday of the Easter season and I learned that Middle Eastern shepherding is different from Western shepherding, and the difference is significant. In this country or in Europe the shepherd follows the herd. But in the Middle East, shepherds walk out in front of the flock, repeatedly calling to the sheep to keep them together. Who knew? Being sheep in America is different from being sheep in Israel. If we’re going to understand the familiar words of the 23rd Psalm and if we’re going to try to visualize Jesus as the Good Shepherd in John’s Gospel, we need to think about being sheep in Israel, and not in America.
It sounds as if American sheep are rather headstrong, and somehow that doesn’t surprise me. The gate to the sheepfold is opened and out they go, scattering in all directions. The shepherd has to hurry to catch up to them. They wander all over the place, undoubtedly getting into all sorts of mischief. Since we are being cast in the role of the sheep, I hate to say it, but sheep aren’t all that bright. If they get out too far ahead of the shepherd, they can find themselves in dangerous situations. Their decision-making isn’t the best. When they see something that they want, like a nice cool drink of water or a mouthful of fresh green grass, they go for it. Sheep aren’t very good at assessing risk or avoiding danger. I expect that American sheep are all rugged individualists, making their own way in the world. They like getting what they want. They expect their shepherd to chase after them and meet their needs, and then rescue them if they get into trouble. At least I’m guessing that this is what it’s like being sheep in America, since in our country it is the shepherd who does the following, herding from behind.
But being sheep in the Middle East is very different. The shepherd is not the nursemaid who chases after them. He is not at their beck and call. Being sheep in Israel is all about following the shepherd. He leads the flock, from the front. He is in charge. The shepherd directs them away from danger and leads them to the things they need: food, water, and shelter. Middle Eastern sheep were led out to graze in the desert wilderness where rich green grass was a rarity, to say the least. The dangers that threatened those sheep were real: lions, wolves, panthers, bears, and leopards prowled in the wilderness in Bible times. They also fell prey to thieves and bandits, sudden blinding dust storms, parched, dry conditions, dangerously steep and narrow paths, and furnace-like heat. You can read all about that in the Bible. The shepherd of Middle Eastern sheep must risk his life to defend and protect his flock. Unlike an American or Western shepherd, sometimes, he must even lose his life for the sake of the sheep, because he was all that stood between them and danger or death.
The good shepherd, John tells us, knows his own sheep by name. They listen to his voice, and they follow where he leads. While all sheep are basically pretty dumb, they can learn to recognize their shepherd’s voice, and they will come when he calls. Ken Bailey, the well-known expert on the Bible and Middle Eastern culture, tells the story of a shepherd boy in the 1930’s whose sheep were confiscated by the government during riots in Palestine. This young shepherd was an orphan and his half dozen sheep were all that he owned in the world. When he went to the massive compound to reclaim his animals, the British sergeant told him that he could take any six sheep. Using his shepherd’s pipe, the boy gave his distinctive call, and from among hundreds of animals, his six sheep separated themselves from the rest and trotted out after him. Being Middle Eastern sheep is all about listening for the shepherd’s call and then following him out of danger.
Having learned all of that useful information about Middle Eastern sheep and shepherds, it seems obvious that we must now ask if we, in our Christian lives, are being sheep in the true biblical sense. Or, have we imposed an American version of what it means to be sheep onto the familiar texts of Psalm 23 and John’s description of Jesus as the Good Shepherd? Being sheep, you see, is a very different prospect if you are living on the vast and abundant plains of America than it is if you are being sheep in the dangerous desert wilderness of Israel. And being followed by an attentive shepherd who will rescue you, no matter what, when you call him is very different from listening to your shepherd’s voice and obediently following him where he leads you, so that he can provide for your needs, and protect you from harm. What kind of a sheep are you? And how do you relate to your Good Shepherd? Do you follow him, or do you expect him to follow you as you impulsively make your own way in the world? Do you listen and respond to his call, or do you expect him to listen and answer your prayers, your requests, and your cries for help?
But, wait a minute, you may now be thinking. What about the story of the Good Shepherd who sought and found the lost sheep? Here was a shepherd who obviously followed after a wayward individual who had strayed from the flock. And, in the same way, won’t Jesus trail after me if I wander off the reservation? The answer, of course, is Yes. If a sheep is lost, the Middle Eastern shepherd will go and look for it, and quickly. Here’s another thing that I learned about sheep. They are almost totally defenseless. If they get separated from the flock, they will huddle under a bush and bleat as loud as they can, signaling to all predators in the area that dinner is served. Again, not too smart.
The shepherd will take his rod, which was something like a billy club, often with an iron tip, and he will try to get to the sheep before a lion or a wolf does. Psalm 23 says that the shepherd’s rod is a comfort to the sheep, because with it the shepherd risks his life to beat off vicious predators and bandits. John’s Gospel assumes that this is the harsh reality of life for Middle Eastern sheep when Jesus says that he will lay down his life for the sheep. No one takes it from him, but he lays it down of his own accord.
So, yes, absolutely, the Good Shepherd, will come to the rescue, and even give his own life for the sake of the sheep, as Jesus did on the cross. But that doesn’t mean that you should treat the shepherd now like an ambulance service that you can basically ignore until trouble strikes, and then call for emergency assistance. This isn’t like AAA. You don’t pay a yearly fee and then go about the country with no worries, knowing that you are only a phone call away from roadside assistance. That’s not the way it works, at least not with Middle Eastern sheep.
You might be able to set loose American sheep in fenced grazing land without a shepherd being constantly present, and then round up the stragglers as needed when they got into trouble. But you would never allow Middle Eastern sheep to wander free in a wilderness without a shepherd to lead them. If you did, you would soon have no sheep. Being sheep in Israel was highly dangerous, as we have seen, and, as dumb as sheep are, those sheep knew that they had to listen to and follow their shepherd if they were going to survive.
We American sheep are sometimes misled, or lured into a false sense of security that makes us less attentive to our shepherd, less aware of the real dangers we face. We tend to think of the shepherd as someone who will follow after us and rescue us, rather than as someone we must follow because our lives depend on it. When the Bible talks about the fact that we are sheep, it takes for granted that we know what life was like for Middle Eastern sheep. It assumes that we understand the necessary relationship between the sheep and the shepherd and how that works. Even if we American sheep are blissfully unaware of the real dangers we face, our lives do depend upon listening to our good shepherd, responding to his call, and following him. That’s what the Bible is trying to tell us in the 23rd Psalm and in John, chapter 10. And that gives us something to think about on this fourth Sunday in the season of Easter.