A good shepherd needs good sheep

Sister Judith Sutera | May 8, 2017

Because of the scripture for the fourth Sunday of the Easter season in some Christian denominations, it is known as “Good Shepherd Sunday.”

In the gospel from St. John (10:1-10), Jesus tells the people that he is the true shepherd who enters through the gate and his sheep hear his voice. His listeners would have been familiar with this image from the Old Testament. There are several passages there where God is referred to as a shepherd, or where God laments that the people have gone astray like sheep or been abandoned by their spiritual leaders as sheep without a shepherd.

No one can be called a shepherd without sheep. If Jesus identifies with shepherding, all who would follow him must see themselves as his sheep and take that seriously. Sheep do not have a reputation for being the most brilliant of animals. But what they lack in individual intelligence is compensated by their extraordinary sense of community. They can make excellent followers.

The smartest thing a sheep can do is to be loyal to a good shepherd. Nature did not give sheep any good personal defenses like claws or wings or venom. But nature gave them something else, the instinct to stick close to a top-of-the-food-chain ally, a creature that can throw a rock or build a fire or force them to go somewhere they would never choose to go, but which turns out to be a green pasture near restful waters. Nature gave them the instinct to stay together and thereby to be easily led. They are, in fact, quite helpless and easily panic when separated. That’s why the shepherd has to go and find the lost and carry them. They can literally go limp.

While instinct keeps them moving together, no sheep is born with the ability only by instinct to know their true shepherd. In Jesus’ time, sheep were kept safe by being brought together in a common pen at night. Then each shepherd would come and call their sheep and depart with them. Instinct prepares a sheep to follow the right crowd, but they had to learn from those other sheep to recognize the right voice. Once they have that skill, they cannot be deceived because they have learned the sound of their own shepherd’s call. As each group moves out of the pen, they can distinguish whether or not this is their flock and wait for their own command.

Jesus suggests that thieves may try to take sheep that are not theirs, but the good sheep will not be fooled. People, on the other hand, may not be as discriminating. We hear many voices around us calling out, just as many shepherds may have been calling at once in Jesus’ sheep pen image. But sometimes we humans are tempted to simply follow anything that moves. If we do not trust that God is our one true shepherd and the company of believers is the true flock, we may be deceived into going in other directions. The promise of happiness from wealth and power can steer us towards greed and selfishness. The comforting pastures of indulgence and addiction can trick us into thinking we are satisfied and at peace. The imagined possibility of greener fields can lure us towards infidelity or jealousy.

For better or worse, we aren’t sheep. We have that little thing called free will. Sometimes we even refer to bad choices as being “against my better instincts.” So no matter how good a shepherd is, only good sheep can choose to hear the voice that leads them to true happiness even if there is much movement around them in other directions.