Early one Sunday morning in the Spring, almost 60 years ago when I was a kid, I was awakened by the bawling of animals. Now, that of itself wasn’t remarkable. After all, this happened on our dairy farm in the rural district around Lumby BC. On a farm, you’re accustomed to the sounds of animals.
But this bawling was louder than usual. And it just didn’t quit. While I could discern the familiar sounds of cows and calves mooing, their voices were in the minority. There were other animal sounds that were unfamiliar.
Still trying to awaken fully, I got out of bed looked out the window of my upstairs bedroom. I could see the barn and the barnyard. Most of the cows were actually inside the barn at this hour, because Dad was milking them. The few that were outside could not have produced all this animal noise. In fact, those cattle were all crowded up against the fence bordering Trinity Valley Road. That’s where all the noise was coming from.
Sheep! Hundreds of wooly, bleating sheep! They filled the road … and not just the road, but the shoulders and the shallow ditches, too. They were all on the move, guided by shepherds on horseback and assisted by well-trained sheepdogs. As we learned later, they were all from a ranch near Falkland. They were on their way to a community pasture on Crown land up in Trinity Valley, in the hill country north of our farm.
They would stay there for the whole summer, and then in the early fall the shepherds would round up the sheep and herd them back to the ranch in Falkland. It was quite a trek, a distance of about 100 kilometres. It took several days, which required lots of organization, including the arranging of overnight rest spots en route.
We were fascinated by it all: the bleating sheep, the highly-trained sheepdogs directed only by the briefest of voice-commands from the shepherds on horseback, and the support vehicle carrying supplies for the journey. It was like a river of life, animal and human, streaming down the public roads, occasionally parting like the waters of the Red Sea to permit the passage of a car or logging truck.
After that first experience, we watched for them every year. Sometimes, because of timing, the sheep drive got in our way when we were driving to Vernon for shopping, business, or Sunday worship at Peace Lutheran Church. But we didn’t mind. It always was something of a novelty, a bit of an adventure.
Other than what I have just told you, I have had no experience with sheep. We were dairy farmers. Sure, we also had a few pigs and chickens and a horse or two. But never sheep. I never herded them.
But my mother did, and my father knew something about them, too.
One thing my parents emphasized is that you have to keep sheep moving. If you pasture them for too long in one spot they will kill the grass, because their jaws are shaped in such a way that they can clip the grass down to the roots. So you have to keep the sheep moving for the good of the pasture … which in the end is also for the good of the sheep, too.
The second thing my parents told me about sheep is that they are prone to ticks and lice. So, next time you’re driving the car through the countryside and you see a cute lamb close to the road, think twice before you stop the car, climb the fence into the pasture, and give that lamb a hug. You may regret it when you get home and discover that your clothing is now infested!
And then there’s the shepherd. It doesn’t take much to be a shepherd. My mother told me that since she was one of the younger children in her family, she was often given the responsibility of herding the sheep on the family farm in Manitoba. The older children were given tasks of greater responsibility, but even a young girl could herd sheep.
That reminds us of a few facts about sheep and shepherds in the ancient Mediterranean world. First of all, there were lots of sheep dotting the hillsides, because they were well adapted to grazing in the dry climate. And since domesticated sheep need shepherds, there were lots of shepherds in Mediterranean societies.
In ancient times, shepherds were not highly skilled people. In fact, it was often the case that the role of shepherding was given to those who weren’t capable of or qualified for positions requiring complex skills or greater imagination and initiative. I think you can easily see, then, that the men who served as shepherds included those who were of no fixed address — men whom we might now write off as suspicious characters.
I suppose people in the ancient Mediterranean world were just as prone to stereotypes and class-discrimination as we are. But we should also note that, back then (as now) there might be occasions when a cautious attitude was indeed warranted. For example, there were laws prohibiting the purchase of sheep from shepherds, because shepherds sometimes stole sheep from their employers’ flocks, and then tried to sell them to unwitting buyers looking for a good deal in meat.
I’m sorry if I’m pricking our romantic balloons about sheep and shepherds. Actually, I’m trying to help us understand why we may want to think of ourselves as sheep, and also thank God for Jesus, the Good Shepherd.
Among domesticated animals, sheep are among the easiest to herd. Animal sociologists have learned that this is so because sheep organize themselves in a well-defined social hierarchy. In a flock of sheep, a leader will inevitably emerge; and once that leader emerges, then the rest of the flock will follow.
But like most domesticated animals, sheep are not well-equipped to deal with hazards. Their wild counterparts may know what to do when predators come close, but the leader of a domesticated flock might be blind to danger. As the leader goes, so goes the rest of the flock. And if their shepherd is ignorant, incapable, or uncaring about threatening dangers, then the sheep can become easy prey.
I think we’re getting the picture now. I think we can see why Jesus speaks of us as sheep, and speaks of himself as the Good Shepherd. Even if we don’t have much direct experience with sheep we can see that, like sheep, we need protection and guidance. We need someone to tend to our needs, to ensure that we have what we need for life, day and night.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd. Jesus is not like the hired shepherd who has no investment in the well-being of the flock. Jesus is more than even the owner of the flock; for while the owner of the flock may go to extraordinary measures to ensure the safety of his flock, he or she would hardly consider putting his or her life on the line in order to save an ornery old ram or ewe … or even a cute little lamb.
Jesus and Jesus alone has the qualifications to be the Good Shepherd. That is how Jesus refers to himself. What he means is that he will lay down his life for the sake of his sheep. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who so cherishes you and me that he willingly goes even the way of suffering and death for the sake of the mission given him by his Heavenly Father.
And his mission is this: to embrace you and me by the forgiveness of sins; to gather us and join us together with all who belong to God; to give us new life that begins here and now and stretches beyond our comprehension, beyond the boundary between time and eternity.
May God grant us all this new life with Jesus, the Good Shepherd. May God open our eyes and hearts and minds to the vast flock — the one flock! — that God nurtures in love.
Peace be with you all.