Responding to the Shepherd's Care

Reading: John 10.11-18
There is an old riddle, "If you have twenty sheep in a pen and one jumps out, how many are left?" A simple sum for the maths student - "Nineteen." But for the farmer? He knows they would all jump out! "There would be none left."

For my first four years of schooling, our family lived in Stanthorpe. I recall well being driven one day to a sheep station. There were two car-loads of us travelling along one of those corrugated two-tracked bush roads. Sometimes the cars shuddered over grids made of old railway lines to keep the animals from straying.

But then we had to stop for a gate. Now, Australian farm gates have been a marvel of ingenuity. Sometimes it seems as if no two gates operate the same way. That must have been the case this day. The person from the car in front was taking a long time to open it.

Some sheep were standing nearby. Soon one of them ran up and jumped an imaginary fence between the two cars. It was followed by another and another and another... We had sheep jumping the imaginary fence and running around our car to do it again.

Like Sheep

One of the Old Testament prophets, Isaiah, wrote that all of us are like sheep. He didn't mean that we look like sheep, talk like sheep or walk like sheep - we're not like that at all. He wrote, "We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way" (Is. 53.6a).

That can be a bit puzzling when you think of my childhood experience - the sheep followed the leader and all did the same thing! What Isaiah means is that, one way or another, we all make the wrong choice to forget God, to live as if he isn't there, to make up our own rules... We take ourselves away from his guidance and care.

In Genesis we read about Adam and Eve - the happy garden, the sad choice, the on-going consequences... We are inclined to say, "It's all Adam and Eve's fault. We are sinners because they sinned." We may even go a step further and add, "It isn't fair!"

True, we are born with a tendency to choose the wrong way. And we are surrounded by influences and temptations to do the wrong thing. But we confirm all that by our own choices, by going astray and turning to our own way - our own way over against God's way.

Isaiah, of course, doesn't finish there. He goes on to say, "and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all" (v. 6b). Who's the "him"? We will come back to that in a moment.


Of course, we have raised, cared for and used sheep for many centuries - one source says 11,000 years. When Isaiah wrote, he obviously wasn't thinking of sheep out in the wild, but domesticated sheep - farm animals in our sense. But they looked after them very differently from the way we do.

We think of vast sheep stations. We picture the "drover" with tens of thousands of sheep, following them on his horse - which may be an ag-bike or even a helicopter these days - and sending off his sheep dogs after any strays. For Babe, the "pig" of movie fame, all he really needed to know was "Baa, ram, ewe" and the sheep would obediently go into the pen as directed. In the real world, there is no such simple formula. The drover drives his sheep.

The Palestinian shepherd had a much smaller flock - perhaps fifty to a hundred. There were no defined farms or fences to keep them in. They knew the shepherd and he knew them. The shepherds could take their flocks wherever there was pasture and water. There were walled shelters where they could be kept at night safe from wild animals. The shepherd slept in the doorway - he was the gate.

There might be several shepherds with their flocks in the sheep-fold. But in the morning, at the call of the shepherds, the flocks would separate themselves and follow their own shepherd. Yes, unlike the drover, the shepherd leads his sheep and they follow him.

David was a shepherd boy before he became king. He remembered how he used to care for the sheep. He thought about the Lord's care for him. He wrote -

The Good Shepherd

The Israelite people came to see David as the ideal king. No doubt that is why the Hebrew verb for "shepherd" came to refer also to leading and ruling. But many who were supposed to lead and rule were far from ideal. There were kings "wise and otherwise", as someone has put it. There were false prophets as well as true. There were also priests who led them into false worship.

By the time of Jesus, the people had been through hard times. Disobedience had led them into exile. Rigid harshness had brought about persecution. Now they were under foreign rule, their own leadership divided between the Sadducees who curried favour with the Romans and the Pharisees who became watchdogs of public morality.

On the whole they were drovers rather than shepherds. The ones who had come before, Jesus said, were at worst "thieves and robbers" whose main interest was to "steal and kill and destroy" or at best "hired hands" who "care nothing for the sheep" (vv. 8,10,12,13).

Now in Jesus God had sent his own Son to be the Good Shepherd - the true Shepherd of his people. Jesus said, "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full" (v. 10). He had come to "lay down his life for the sheep" (vv. 11,15). His love reached beyond the immediate confines of Judaism because he had "other sheep that are not of this sheep pen" (v. 16). He had come so that they too would listen to his voice and become part of his "one flock".

As Jesus said elsewhere, "The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mk 10.45).

Did you know he came for you? Have you heard him calling you, "Come to me and I will give you rest"? Can you say, "The Lord is my Shepherd"?

Today is Mothers' Day. On the one hand, we have been rightly remembering the debt we all owe to our own mothers - some are still with us, some have gone before. On the other hand, we all face the responsibility of receiving and passing on the gift of faith in the one who alone could say, "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full." There are many "drovers" in this world - and many gurus beckoning for our allegiance. There is only one Good Shepherd who merits our trust and gives us his life. Put your trust in him!

© Peter J. Blackburn, Home Hill Uniting Church, 14 May 2000
Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the New International Version, © International Bible Society, 1984.

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