Were churches open this Sunday, the theme of the Good Shepherd would undoubtedly have led to the singing of familiar hymns and the evocation of familiar images. How many stained glass windows are there with a depiction of the Good Shepherd with a lamb around his shoulders or cradled in his arms?
The familiar words and pictures can evoke a figure of gentleness and miss the toughness of the Good Shepherd of whom Jesus speaks. The Good Shepherd is not a gentle rustic, dwelling in a bucolic idyll, detached from the harshness of the world. Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd and Jesus is not a man who is deceived. Jesus is instantly able to spot the those who are dishonest , those who are conmen. He knows also when people are being honest and sincere, he discerns those who are his true followers. “He calls his own sheep by name . . . and the sheep follow him because they know his voice”, Saint John tells us.
If the Good Shepherd is the one who knows his sheep, then human attempts at deception are in vain. The Book of Common Prayer contains words exhorting people to acknowledge God as one who knows his sheep, saying people should confess their “manifold sins and wickedness,” and that they “should not dissemble nor cloak them before the face of Almighty God.” An attitude of concealment is a denial of the Good Shepherd.
It is more comfortable to preserve the image of the Good Shepherd as a figure from hymnody and stained glass, to regard Jesus’ words as a comforting story and to behave as though God is not one who sees his flock all of the time.
It is easier for Christians to have a memory that is selective. It is easier to remember the aspects of life that cast behaviour in a good light. Instead of being the Good Shepherd, the tough and uncompromising figure of whom Jesus speaks, it is easier to imagine God as some benign old gentleman who smiles sweetly at all that is said.
Selective memory is accompanied by compartmentalisation: a compartment for God and the church; a compartment for work; a compartment for home and family; a compartment for relationships with other people. It’s as though the story of the Good Shepherd is read and people think that the shepherd can only see one small section of the sheep fold.
“And the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” To hear the voice of Jesus demands discernment. It demands a commitment that is sometimes made with a profound sense of reluctance.
Jesus is not teaching a Sunday School lesson. He is not creating an image that might be used as a colouring picture by children. He is not providing material for some nice hymns sung to familiar tunes. Jesus’ intention is to say to those prepared to listen to him that this is what God is like. It is then the choice of those who have heard the words whether they will listen.
“He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.” Being led is not a passive activity, it demands hearing and following.