It’s a familiar, but perhaps too familiar, concept that we seem to overlook and gloss over when it is read or heard.
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.” (John 10:11)
Although the culture of being a shepherd and raising sheep as it was done in the ancient Biblical times is foreign to the large majority of us, the concepts and ideas are crucial and just as pivotal to our lives as they were to those who heard the message thousands of years ago.
There were few domesticated animals during those times, and sheep were one of the more popular ones.
We see David, before he became a great and mighty King, as the shepherd boy keeping watch over the flock in the Old Testament, for example.
Sheep and shepherds were a common sight, often unvalued and under appreciated, but common. They were so common in fact that the image of Jesus being the Good Shepherd was one that would have immediately brought to mind particular images of Jesus to those who heard the analogy.
There are many qualities and characteristics about shepherds and sheep that we can take and apply to our lives and the relationship between Christians and the Lord. However, let’s just take a few:
1.) Care for the sheep
The beauty of how a shepherd cares for his sheep depicts the detail and care our Lord takes in caring for his children. Shepherds pay such close attention to each individual lamb that he knows when the slightest change shows up in any of the flock, and recognizes when they are sick, hurt, or in need of special attention.
Sometimes a lamb may have been hurt by a predator, scratched by a thornbush, or had some type of sickness. Often the shepherd will apply some olive oil that is carried in a ram’s horn to help treat a wound.
When crossing streams or dangerous terrain, the shepherd is known to take special acts of care for the sheep. The shepherd will lead the way into the water. Most are able to cross safely, but if one is swept away by the rushing current then the shepherd will turn into a lifeguard for his precious flock and will rush into the water to save the sheep.
This serves as a reminder of Isaiah’s words in Isaiah 43:2 when he said “when though passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee.” In other words, the Lord promises that He is our lifeguard. When we cross rough waters, when we are swept away by the rushing tide, we are not to worry because he will be the one to jump in and rush to our aide.
2.) Bringing back stray sheep
At the conclusion of each night, the shepherd knows his sheep so intimately that even if he does not do a nightly count, it is often said that good shepherds ‘feel’ when a lamb is missing from the flock. That goes the same for during the day.
The shepherd makes every effort to ensure sheep are not allowed to stray away from the flock. If they get away from the flock then they are in danger and become helpless against predators and grave injury. Not to mention, sheep are not that intelligent, so they become lost…..literally. They don’t have a GPS, so they can’t ‘recalculate’ and get their sense of direction back and put themselves back on the right direction.
If they stray from the flock, they must be brought back. Jesus does not let us stray, stay lost on our way, and wander aimlessly without direction. He goes, like a good shepherd, out and find his stray sheep in order to bring them back to the fold.
It is the desire of Christ that stray sheep be brought back into the fold and we are to be his instruments….we are to be the GPS of this culture….to help guide those who have strayed and lost their way….back to the flock.
3.) Feeding the sheep
One of the most important jobs of the shepherd is to ensure the sheep in the flock are fed. This can prove difficult sometimes through some of the seasons, but no matter the season, it is the shepherd’s job to make sure the sheep are fed.
Springtime brings the abundance of lush, bright, green pastures, and the job of the shepherd to find food for his flock is not as difficult. The sheep are typically allowed to graze close to the village where the shepherd lives. The sheep are able to eat fresh growth or some of the dried growth after the grain is harvested and the poor have been fed.
In the fall or winter months it can prove a bit more difficult for the shepherd to find food for his flock. For smaller flocks, the shepherd might be able to just stable the flock close to his home in the village and feed them. For larger flocks, this proves much more difficult during these months to find food. But, shepherds always seem to manage a way to feed their flock.
As the Good Shepherd of his people, Jesus ensures His people are fed continuously. Feasting on the body and blood of Jesus Himself, the supply is continuous and never runs out, because we have an everlasting God….an everlasting body and blood of Jesus for as long as the shepherd continues to feed and the sheep continue to graze.
4.) Sheep know their shepherd’s voice
This is my personal favorite characteristic of them all. For dog or cat owners, you can probably relate a little to this one. If you are not a dog or cat owner, but you are a parent or you have parents (which should be all of us since we are breathing and reading this), you will know the value of someone’s voice.
Imagine your dog getting out of the backyard fence and running down the neighborhood street. You whistle and try to search to find him. Suddenly, you yell his name and a minute later….here he comes….ears flopping in the wind…bolting down the road toward you. It was the sound of your voice that he responded to. He knows his master’s voice….and he answered. Sheep are the same way, but much deeper. Sheep will ONLY respond to their master’s voice and no one else.
Have you ever been in the middle of a crowded room or store and lost sight of your child? That panicked feeling set in for a few minutes, until you call them by name. The moment you call them, they answer (well....usually). It’s the voice. The voice of their parent. The voice they recognize, they know...that unique voice that begs them to respond.
As sheep, we should be so in tune with the voice of God that we know His voice and we answer.
There are three ways we can hear the voice of God:
- In Mass – In the Mass we hear and experience the voice of God
- In prayer- In prayer we have a one on one encounter with the God of the universe and speak to Him. He hears our voice, and we hear His.
- Through the Pope and the bishops- The Catholic Church is the only Church that is the living voice of God. When the Pope and the bishops speak, we hear God speak through them.
5.) Sheep are very social
While the sheep are grazing, sheep have a deep need to see other sheep. The shepherd in fact, because of this deep need of the sheep, will take extra measures to make sure each sheep always has visual contact with the other sheep while they eat. This ability to see the other sheep while they eat actually prevents stress when they are moved or are handled as well.
Experts claim that this prevents the sheep from being extremely agitated, serves as a protection mechanism against predators, and helps make it easier to move them or to allow a guard dog to protect them.
As Christians, when we stop attending Mass, drop out of attending social functions of the Church, and get away from participating in fundraisers or community projects of the Church, it leaves us feeling as if we are among the few against a secular and corrupt world. It leaves us feeling defeated, agitated, stressed, and depressed. The need to be around other Christians, to be uplifted, and encouraged is crucial in our growth….as well as the growth and encouragement of others.
May we never take for granted the precious Great Shepherd that we have in the Lord Jesus Christ.