The fourth Sunday after Easter is also known in many churches as Good Shepherd Sunday as the gospel reading in each year of the three year cycle is about Jesus as our shepherd.
There has been a lot in the news recently – but one big story that broke a week last Thursday may, I suspect, have passed you by – it doesn’t seem to have made the national press though it was reported by the Gloucestershire Echo and posted on its This is Gloucestershire web page.
Police in the small town of Newent have seized a flock of delinquent sheep – the sheep have been terrorising the town. The seven sheep, whose owners had allegedly neglected them and allowed them to roam freely, were accused of “trashing fences, gardens, and other property.” Police were unable to solve the problem themselves, so they called in a shepherd and two sheepdogs to help crack the case. The sheep have now been successfully rounded up and auctioned off to cover the cost of the operation. A local constable said, “The community has suffered a great deal because of this.” Perhaps we should call them The Newent Seven.
Today in our gospel reading we hear Jesus describe himself as a shepherd: My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.
The people of Newent found out what happens when sheep do not have a good shepherd to look after them. The Newent Seven, their shepherd not caring for them, stopped following their shepherd and wandered off to create a trail of destruction. And the police discovered that the best way of dealing with errant sheep is to find a good shepherd to sort the problem out. Fortunately, unlike the Newent Seven, we have a shepherd who cares and who is already there. And all will be well for us, his sheep, as long as we continue to follow him. Jesus, of course, is our shepherd – but perhaps we don’t realise what a shocking image that would have been to those who first heard him describe himself in this way.
Look at any society and you’ll find groups of people doing particular and essential jobs that the rest of that society look down upon. We all do it – we make jokes about them, laugh at them. And sometimes even, necessary though the job may be, there are professions that attract downright hostility. It’s a bit unfair really. These jobs all have to be done – but we all know what people think about them. Many jobs fail the ‘party test.’ There are simply certain jobs where you dread being asked what you do at a party because you know what the reaction is going to be. Where people don’t say “That must be awfully interesting – tell me more!” but instead change the subject. Try telling people you’re an estate agent! Or a lawyer! Even worse – try telling people who don’t know you at a party that you’re a priest and see what the reaction is. It’s a very effective conversation stopper. Perhaps they think you’re going to try to convert them! Of course, there’s always the possibility that I might be, but I never let on!
Particular professions, of course, also have those within them who are the target for their mockery. In the church it’s archdeacons. I understand that in orchestras it’s viola players who are the butt of everyone else’s jokes. And then, of course, there are those jobs that attract not just jokes but downright hostility. Just ask anyone what they think of bankers!
In first century Palestine there were two groups that were deeply despised and attracted downright hostility. One was tax-collectors – so not much has changed over two thousand years! Then it was because tax-collectors worked on behalf of the Romans – they were collaborators – and they also creamed a little off the top for themselves. The other group was shepherds! For most people in first-century Palestine, shepherds were despised and regarded with suspicion more than perhaps any other group. Just as some groups today on the margins of society are feared because they are all cast as thieves or hooligans or drunks, however much they don’t deserve such condemnation, so first-century shepherds were considered to be on the margins of society.
Some were hired hands who deliberately allowed their sheep to graze on other people’s land and stole wool, milk and lambs from the flock, so all shepherds tended to be cast as villains. Also, because of the nature of their work, shepherds weren’t able to fulfil their sabbath duties and attend synagogue, so they were seen as irreligious and lawbreakers. They were widely believed to be untrustworthy even though they were indispensable to society, for everyone needed the by-products from the sheep – wool and meat and so on. People hated shepherds even though they couldn’t manage without them. Everyone looked down upon them.
How typical of Jesus to use the image of someone despised by polite society and turn that image on its head – take the image of the despised shepherd and use it of himself. And not only that – just before this passage in today’s gospel reading Jesus has described himself as the trustworthy shepherd who is prepared to lay down his life in order to save the sheep. People would have laughed – they knew shepherds weren’t trustworthy and wouldn’t die for their sheep – what nonsense! But, says Jesus, that is exactly what I am – a shepherd. And he shows how as a shepherd he protects and cares for the sheep in his charge – you and me. He will allow no-one – not thieves, not the wolves who commonly preyed on sheep – to snatch his sheep away. For being a sheep at the time of Jesus was risky – there were always thieves about who would look for an easy opportunity to do a bit of sheep-rustling and the danger from wolves was always present. Jesus knows that life is full of dangers and temptations. And he promises that he will always protect us and that no-one will ever snatch us from his hand. We though, on our part, need to hear his voice and follow him.
The Newent Seven, the gang of sheep that I began with, left to their own devices wandered off and caused no end of trouble. Without a shepherd to guide us we can end up, in life, doing much the same. The police found a good shepherd to come and rescue the Newent Seven. We have a Good Shepherd who came to rescue us, to lead us, to guide us, to protect us – and if we follow him then we know that ultimately all will be well.
My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.