To his listeners, this story was taken right from real life. They were farmers and fishermen, craftsmen and laborers… maybe even a few shepherds. They related immediately to the long hours, the vigilance and the dedication required to protect livestock from predators. They knew the damage wolves could do if they ever got in among the flock. They lived on very thin margins and they understood that the loss of a single sheep could make a big difference. The message, its meaning and the pivotal role of the messenger were all self-evident.
Not surprisingly, things have changed a lot in two-thousand years. We don’t run into many shepherds on the streets of our town. The wolves we see are on the Animal Channel. And doubtless, our 21st Century pride bristles at being equated with sheep. So, has the Good Shepherd lost its relevance? Has the parable outlived its usefulness? Not a chance.
Look around you; the wolves are out in force. And they are howling for our souls. From relentless economic and social pressures to a coarsening of community standards; from a growing lack of civility to increasing insensitivity, isolation and alienation; from purposeless personal drift to depression and despair; from enslaving addictions to family violence; from ubiquitous internet porn to the horrors of child abuse… we are under constant assault. And before these merciless demons, we are as helpless as sheep. The world, the flesh and the devil know exactly what buttons to push … the poor-me button … the I deserve it button … the grass is always greener button … the get-even button … the nobody ‘s looking button … the everybody does it button … the just this one time button. We are wired from head to toe with vulnerabilities. Undefended, we don’t stand a chance.
Enter the Good Shepherd. He lays down his life for his sheep. No one took it from him. He gave it in perfect sacrifice as a timeless example of unconditional love. Under assault he is our protection. In our sins he is our redemption. Know with certainty, that at some time in our lives every one of us will be the lost sheep. Every one of us will be sought out and called for. Every one of us will need to be carried back to the fold; to be nursed and restored. For some of us, life can be a series of endless lost and found, round trips. But as long as we have the will and the grace to cry out, the Shepherd will be there. That’s not an invitation to abuse God’s love. The Shepherd knows his sheep. We should know him. He is all merciful, but he is all just. If we prefer the company of wolves, we might get what we wish for. We may deserve it, but: “Good riddance to bad rubbish” are not the words or the wishes of the Good Shepherd.
It is significant that Jesus identifies himself as The Good Shepherd… not as A Good Shepherd. His guardianship is universal. And to make the point, he tells us: I have other sheep that do not belong to this flock. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd. As he has throughout his ministry, Jesus is telling his disciples that his New Covenant is not the private preserve of the Chosen People. He is the Shepherd of Jew and gentile… free and slave… man and woman, alike. He is the Savior of the World, not the warrior king of Israel. And so, down through the ages… in persecution and schism… in Reformation and Counter Reformation… in war and peace… the flock has spread across the earth and now numbers in the billions. And today his flock continues to multiply… right into the wolf’s jaws of genocide and the toxic smirks of secular ridicule.
In the spirit of the Easter Season, this gospel reminds us that Jesus is the sacrificial Lamb of God, ready to lay down his life for his people: I have the power to lay it down and the power to take it up again. And that is precisely what he has done… for our redemption and in obedience to the will of the Father. In Christ, we are saved; but only if we have the will to stay within his protection. To our last breath, the Good Shepherd will pursue us relentlessly… listening for our faintest cry. Don’t throw his love away. Don’t make yourself so very hard to find. Stay close. Live in his love and protection. And keep an eye out for wolves.
The Reverend David Sellery, Episcopal Priest, Author, and Coach. Fr. Sellery presently serves as Priest-in-Charge, St. John’s Salisbury, CT. Fr. Sellery has excelled at using new media to increase outreach beyond the Church doors via his website, blog posts, and podcasts.
Image: “Brooklyn Museum – The Good Shepherd (Le bon pasteur) – James Tissot