“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me .” John 10:14
I grew up in a very small village in the middle of Somerset in the West of England. There were 44 children at our two teacher primary school; everyone knew everyone else. Because there were so few people in the village, you didn’t just know everyone else, you heard everyone else’s business as well. You heard how much they had sold livestock for at the market; you heard how many gallons of milk they got from their cattle; you heard how much they had paid for the land they had bought. Because everyone knew everything, there was no point in being anything but straight; if you tried to deceive people, they caught on to you very quickly.
People were straight and you grew up accepting people as you found them. Growing up in a small village was not the best preparation for the outside world. Accepting people as I found them, meant being taken in by people; the country values of being open and honest didn’t count for much when living in London. There were hard lessons to learn that people could not be trusted.
Read the Gospels, and Jesus of Nazareth, the man up from the country, has no such problems; he is not deceived. He is instantly able to spot the chancers and the wasters and knows also when people are being honest and sincere, “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me .”
Look at Jesus’ encounters with people:
There was the woman at the well who tries to avoid the awkward subject, Jesus says to her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”
“I have no husband,” she replied.
Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”
There was the rich young man who wants eternal life and says he has obeyed all the commandments, but Jesus knows that in his heart of hearts the man still has not really committed himself. Jesus says to him, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth”.
Even Jesus’ closest friends do not escape minute scrutiny. Peter has denied Jesus and when Jesus has risen from the dead, he questions Peter closely, asking the same question three times, The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my sheep”.
The Good Shepherd knows his sheep. The Bible tells us that while we look at people from the outside, God looks at the heart.
God knows even more about people than did the inhabitants of my tiny home village. He knows the thoughts as well as the actions.
Of course, we pretend to ourselves that the picture of the Good Shepherd is no more than a nice story and that God is not one who sees his flock all of the time.
Attending church, saying our prayers, our memory becomes selective. We remember the aspects of our life that cast us in a good light. We imagine God as some benign old gentleman who smiles sweetly at all we say; we prefer not to think of God as someone aware of all the things we would prefer not to mention.
Selective memory is accompanied by compartmentalisation: a compartment for God and the church; a compartment for our work; a compartment for home and family; a compartment for relationships with other people. It’s as though we read the story of the Good Shepherd and think he can only see one small section of the sheep fold.
Living in a country parish for seven years, the field at the back of the Rectory was used for grazing sheep. The field was bounded by a wire fence that was hard against a stone wall. Frequently, the sheep would push their way through the wire and find themselves jammed between the barbed wire strands of the fence and the granite stones of the wall. Trying to free them was difficult. To pull a sheep back through the wire was to risk injury to oneself and to the sheep and was resisted violently by the animal. The only other option was to stand on the wall and pull the sheep upwards and lift it back over the fence. It was a precarious exercise; but it had to be done, the sheep could not be left trapped.
Lifting those sheep out of a jam became for me a picture of what God does for us; reaching down to lift us up from situations from which we cannot extricate ourselves. The Good Shepherd is good because he is prepared not only to reach down, but to sacrifice himself for his flock.
“I know my sheep”, says Jesus. He knows exactly what we are like; even when we pretend ourselves that he does not. He knows the situations in which we have become trapped.
“And my sheep know me”: it is sometimes with a profound reluctance that we do. Sometimes it is with the greatest of unhappiness that we acknowledge that we have lost our way and that we need to be rescued.
“I am the good shepherd”. We can no more escape his watch than we could remain anonymous in a small village.