Last weekend on 8 May the Church celebrated the Fourth Sunday of Easter which is also called Good Shepherd Sunday. Even in these industrial and technological times, the image of the Shepherd is an instantly recognisable one. The Shepherd is the person who looks after the sheep and traditionally protects them from predators, animals, or humans.
In the Old Testament God was constantly referring to the people as his sheep and condemning their leaders for leaving them like sheep without a shepherd. The prophet Micah spoke of a vision he had in which, ‘I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains, like sheep without a shepherd’.
Jeremiah speaks the following message from God; ‘My people have been like lost sheep…They have lost their way and cannot remember how to get back to the fold.’ This theme is repeated again and again throughout the Old Testament.
It is natural that we would think of the shepherds as being good men because they are in a caring role. However, in the Jewish tradition, the shepherds were actually the equivalent of convicts or outlaws. They were considered too dangerous to live among the people and the only work they could get was on the hills as shepherds. Isolated in the mountains they lived effectively as outcasts.
Isolated that is except for the sheep, and in the light of their solitary lifestyle the relationship with their sheep takes on even greater significance. From the time the lambs are born, they recognise the sound of their mother and the voice of the shepherd. Therefore, the lambs return to her when she bleats a cry and to their shepherd when he calls them. To onlookers, all sheep look alike but a shepherd would know his sheep anywhere, and they would clearly hear his voice among the greatest babble.
It is said that in the midst of the most violent storm, the sheep never look up at the sky but towards the shepherd, as they instinctively gather around him. The shepherd will never abandon one of his sheep and he will sleep across the gate of the sheepfold or at the mouth of the cave in order to protect them from wolves. A marauder will have to confront the shepherd in order to get to the sheep.
The True Shepherd
One of the reasons Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd is so that people will make the distinction between him and the shepherds who might have a dubious past. Much more importantly it is to show that he is the true shepherd who will fulfill Ezekiel’s prophecy foretelling for Israel a shepherd from the end of time who was to deliver his people.
The epitome of the bad shepherd in Ezekiel‘s expose of Israel’s leaders of his day sketches out in vivid terms, what it looked like when these shepherds failed to provide proper care. These leaders were slaughtering their sheep for their own gain rather than feeding them. As well as that their sheep had scattered because they had no guidance. They are lost becoming prey to every wild beast with no one to search for them.
Jeremiah in his judgment of the leaders of Israel took this notion one step further, connecting a lack of spirituality on their part with the scattering of the sheep. In Jer. 10:21 he states, no doubt in reference to the captivity of Judah , ‘For the shepherds have become stupid, and have not sought the Lord; they have not prospered, and all their flock is scattered’. Because the leaders or the shepherds failed to care for his people, the Lord said himself that he himself would shepherd them. It was to do that that Jesus came.
I Know My Own
Jesus said, ‘The sheep that belong to me listen to my voice; I know them and they follow me. ’It is probably true that all of us have a part of ourselves that we do not want others to have any inkling about. There is a private aspect of our lives that we would rather most other people would not intrude upon. However, Jesus does know us for he can see into our hearts, and he also knows those who pretend to be his sheep and those who are really loyal followers.
Jesus said that he was ‘sent to the lost sheep of the House of Israel’. Therefore, he came to call sinners. He was condemned because he associated with sinners, and even ‘ate with them’. To that condemnation he replied that it was for such as these that he had come. His story of the lost sheep is something that has always and ever highlighted the core of the Christian message . With a shepherd like Jesus there is no need for any of us to be lost.
Written by Marie – Therese Cryan