The shepherd walks right up to the gate… and the sheep recognize his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he gets them all out, he leads them and they follow because they are familiar with his voice.
(John 10:2-5, The Message)
The fourth Sunday of Easter (this coming Sunday, May 3) has come to be known as “Good Shepherd Sunday”—deriving its name from the Gospel reading for the day, John 10:1-10.
Stories shared by scholar-pastor Ken Bailey prove invaluable to me as I engage and enter the text:
I am mindful of the story from the early part of this century: the story of a Palestinian lad who sought the release of his family’s sheep. The British, you see — in order to subdue an uprising and restore stability in a given village during their time of occupation and control of the Holy Land — had confiscated all the livestock and had them put in a common holding area… all 10,000 of them. Approaching the sergeant in charge, the boy spoke of his family’s needs: my mother is a widow, my sisters and brothers must eat, our five goats are all we have for milk. The sergeant was human. He was moved. But he saw no way things could be rectified at that moment: “Why, there are thousands of goats in there. You’d never be able to pick yours out. I’m sorry, son, I wish I could help.” To which the boy shouted: “Open the gate!” And playing a tune on a pipe, his five came out in a line, following the boy down the lane to his home.
Even today, Middle eastern herds can be seen using a host of tools: some employ well-timed, well-directed stones, many will be seen with the ever popular staff (though it seems to be used as much as a crutch to lean on as any kind of device for directing), a few enlist the help of a faithful dog… Most, though — indeed, the good ones — depend on their unique song. You can see them and hear them today, leading as many as 500 sheep through a valley: moving ahead of the flock, piping or singing their tune for about 8 seconds each minute. Instinctively and unknowingly, the grazing sheep are guided to their intended destination.
I recall the words of a Lebanese shepherd, speaking of his familiarity with his flock: “put a cloth over my eyes and bring me any sheep and only let me put my hands on his face, and I will tell you in only a moment whether it is mine or not.” It’s clear, though, from what we’ve been saying that the familiarity is two way: not only is the shepherd intimately familiar with his herd, but they, too, are intimately familiar with him.
Given this deep familiarity and intimacy between shepherd and flock (and allusions otherwise to “Lord as shepherd” [Psalm 23] and the fallen Shepherds of Israel [Ezekiel 34]), is it any wonder that Jesus would call himself “the Good Shepherd”?
Altogether, it stirs some rich questions, deep in my soul:
…of whether I fully and deeply acknowledge my need for a shepherd,
…of whether I am fully and deeply aware
of the many competing voices and songs
which clamor for my attention and devotion,
…of whether I sit the feet of the Good Shepherd
fully and deeply enough to know his distinctive, unique tune
Oh, listen, dear soul!
Can you hear it,
dear lamb of God?
above the din of earthly noises,
above the bleatings of the larger flock,
beyond the tunes piped by
lesser, competing, false voices,…
a song in the air,
a still small voice in the heart.
It calls us forward.
It beckons us
to pastures and waters,
to a seat at table spread,…
Oh, listen, dear soul.