The Good Shepherd is imagined by each of us in a different way.
Growing up in the pasturelands of the English West Country, a shepherd was a farmer who kept sheep. They grazed in fields, lambed in springtime, and were shorn each year; their constant propensity to escape made them more trying to the patience than cattle, but the qualities of the sheep farmer were probably not greatly different from those of the dairy farmer.
Attending school on Dartmoor, rugged upland in Devon, sheep farming was altogether different. The sheep grazed on open moorland, lived in danger from attacks, might struggle for survival in a bad winter, and were physically very different from their lowland counterparts. Searching for sheep on the moor demanded fitness and ruggedness. Losing lambs through attacks from wildlife was not unusual. In the south-west of Ireland, the re-introduction of large birds of prey to mountainous areas was feared by farmers who saw eagles as a threat to their stock.
The popular image of the shepherd for most urban and suburban people is shaped by television programmes – ‘One man and his dog’ or farming programmes. A stereotype of the shepherd would be a man in flat cap and waxed coat, wearing Wellington boots and carrying a large stick. His flock is gathered by collie dogs that respond obediently to each of his whistles.
The Good Shepherd for many church people may not conjure at all images of farmers; instead it may for them be a picture in a stained glass window of a church, a bearded man in a long white robe carrying around his shoulders a lamb he has rescued from danger; or it may be a picture of Jesus from a Sunday School book, a gentle figure with a white wooled flock standing in lush pasture land beside which flows a gentle stream.
Rarely do the images we have in our minds capture the harshness or toughness of what it meant in Jesus’ time to be the Good Shepherd.
Shepherds were on the edge of society. Living rough lives, they simply would have been unable to observe the rigour of the Jewish ritual and dietary laws. The hundreds of laws that governed every aspect of daily life were impractical to men who lived in the harsh environment of the shepherd. Shepherds were coarse; they were unclean; they would have been shunned by the respectable religious leadership.
The flocks were not the fluffy white creatures of children’s picture books, they were rugged, wiry beasts, barely distinguishable from goats. The dangers they faced were numerous, a lack of food or water, attacks from wild animals, injury or death from falling in ravines, theft by those looking for a meal. The loss of sheep was so taken for granted that those hired to care for them would not have been unduly perturbed if their flock was reduced in number now and again. Jesus himself acknowledges that those paid to care for flocks often did so in a casual an uncaring way.
What is Jesus saying when he describes himself as the ‘Good Shepherd’? What does it mean for us that Jesus is prepared to assume such a role?
It means he is prepared to go out to the edge of society to seek people. Religious people are respectable people, they live upright and law abiding lives; they rarely go out to the edges. The Church stays at the centre. Church leaders like to be at the centre of things, to be esteemed, to be well regarded. But being good shepherds necessarily means moving out from safe places, it means taking the risk that people will frown, will disapprove, that they will say things critical of such behaviour.
Jesus’ response to those on the edge is to see their rescue as taking priority; the ninety-nine will be left in order to go to seek out the one that is lost. Such an approach is not going to be popular in the church. One can hear the complaints and the accusations; one can hear the muttering that those who are lost have only themselves to blame. The church is not going to allow itself to be discommoded in a search for people whose fate is their own fault.
Sometimes it seems that we would prefer our own images of the Good Shepherd. It is easier to think of sheep farmers, or men on television programmes, or stained glass figures and picture books, than it is really to think about what it is that Jesus is saying. It is easier to stay with our familiar thoughts than to think what it is that Jesus is asking of us.