” . . .you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” John 10:26-27
There was a story told in the North about a school teacher who spots a little boy at the back of her primary school class talking while she is teaching the class how to do sums. She breaks off from her teaching and speaks to him loudly. “William, if there were twelve sheep in a field and three of them got out through a hole in the hedge; how many would be left?”
The boy pondered the question and then answered, “None, Miss”.
“William”, says the teacher, “you don’t know much about sums”.
“No, Miss”, he says “and you don’t know much about sheep”.
The story seemed to capture the character of sheep; dull and stupid creatures that would escape from a field and not know then where to go.
I used to wonder about why Jesus favoured the sheep over the goats in the story of the last judgment in Saint Matthew’s Gospel. I came to understand the problem with goats when we had a goat living in our garden outside of Downpatrick. She was a friendly creature with a dark brown coat and a fine pair of horns. She was called Peggy and her kid was called Billy. Peggy was a smart creature at times, when she heard the sound of the metal feed bucket she sprang into life.
At other times she was extraordinarily self-willed. She was tethered one afternoon, but managed to squeeze through the gap between the top of the ditch and the bottom strand of a barbed wire fence, which separated our garden from a field of cows. She had got the long rope tangled round her legs and had pulled so much that the rope had tightened round her legs and she had tripped over. If she had moved backwards even a few inches the rope would have gone slack and she might have got free, Peggy didn’t seem to understand the word backwards.
I heard her bleating and went to see what was wrong. She was a pathetic sight, looking like a trussed-up chicken. The more she struggled to move forwards the tighter the rope pulled. Very gingerly, I climbed up onto the fence. Beginning to lose my balance, I jumped down the other side, managing to get cow dung all over my shiny black shoes and grey clerical trousers. Peggy was freed in a matter of seconds; getting cleaned up afterwards took me much longer. If the goat had only realized that sometimes you need to take a few steps backwards in order to go forwards.
Peggy grazed in the front garden; the field at the back of the Rectory was used for grazing sheep. The field was bounded by a wire fence that ran inside 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.
The sheep allowed themselves to be lifted; to have attempted to lift Peggy the goat up from such a spot could have resulted with both the goat and the person being stuck between the wall and the fence.
Jesus knew well the behaviour of the animals of his time. Sheep may have been dull and stupid; they might easily wander off and go astray; but sheep were animals that could be called back, or, if necessary be carried back; goats would wriggle and struggle free and go their own way.
“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me,” Jesus says to his opponents gathered there in the Temple courts. It is a two way process: the shepherd knows the sheep, and the sheep know the shepherd.
Holidaying near Leon in Spain one year, we went for a walk in the evening. The town was in the heart of a farming community and as we walked along the road, a farmer and his dog walked the other way on ground beside the road. The farmer strode purposefully along with hid dog at his heel; behind them followed a large flock of sheep. Occasionally, the shepherd would call to keep the flock together; a shepherd who knew his sheep and sheep that knew their shepherd.
There is a challenge in what Jesus is saying. This is not a Sunday School lesson he is teaching; it is part of a bitter exchange of words with those who are opposed to him. It is midwinter in Jerusalem and the response that Jesus would have received from those he is talking to would have been as chilly as the weather. Jesus goes right to the very heart of what would have seemed to his followers as being like enemy territory; but they are expected to follow where he leads. Knowing the shepherd’s voice means listening for what he says and going where he calls. Being a Christian means, at times, being sheep-like rather than being goat-like; it means being prepared to give up going our own way and doing our own thing; it means being prepared to listen to what God might say to us. There is a challenge, there.
But if there is a challenge, there is also a reassurance. Jesus says he knows his sheep; he knows each one of us. When the times are not easy and when life is very hard to cope with, there is someone there; there is someone who knows our thoughts and can pick us up and carry us along. But that depends on us, it depends on us being prepared to be picked up and carried, as a sheep is lifted and carried by a shepherd?
Being counted amongst the goats, or amongst the sheep, is our choice.
Jesus says to us, My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”