The passage this week begins with a loaded question. Now, our Bible may translate it as “How long will you keep us in suspense?”, but a closer translation of the original Greek is: “How long will you take away our life (psyche)?” In modern Greek, this idiom is still used and it means, “How long will you continue to annoy us?”
So Jesus is being ambushed in the middle of a celebration and asked to prove he was the Messiah to people who weren’t going to believe him no matter what he said. After all, he had already healed and taught and showed who he was, but that wasn’t enough for the people who were questioning him. They were looking for an argument.
And Jesus, in response, calls himself a shepherd by telling them that they aren’t his sheep. Now, for us, the Bible is full of images of Jesus as shepherd. We have the 23rd Psalm we heard earlier this morning. We have the stained glass window right here in the church. Today is even known as “Good Shepherd Sunday” in the liturgical calendar. Jesus as shepherd is a familiar and comforting image for us today.
But the people who were questioning Jesus and all of those who were listening in to his answer, would have had a very different idea of shepherd. Shepherding was a common occupation during the time of Jesus, but it was a lowly and undesirable one. Shepherds were typically those who had no property or obligation to family, those who turned to the itinerant life of herding sheep in the wilderness as a last resort to making a living.
For the rabbi Jesus to call himself the “good shepherd” would have been a slap in the face to the religious elite of the time. This is a claim with a deliberate edge to it. A modern-day equivalent to shepherd might be for Jesus to say, as Nancy Blakely has noted, “I am the good migrant worker.”
That Jesus would compare himself at all to one of society’s best-known outcasts is striking, but becomes even more so when in the same breath he declares “the Father and I are one” . There is something about the life of a shepherd that tells us about who Jesus is. There is something about shepherding that reveals what God is about.
Shepherding is not an easy job. When I was in high school, I was a 4H member. Now, my love at the time was horses and I joined mostly so I’d have another place to show. But I also spent some time learning about the other animals, including sheep.
Sheep are by nature pretty skittish animals, which is why they need so much care. A shepherd has to be with the sheep all of the time to make sure they do not follow one another into danger. When taking on a new flock, a shepherd has to spend hours with the sheep until they know that the shepherd is not a threat. Over and over again the shepherd leads the sheep to places with plenty for them to eat, to water that is calm enough that they can drink.
In The Preaching Life, Barbara Brown Taylor tells of a conversation she had with a friend who grew up on a sheep farm in the Midwest. According to him, sheep are not dumb at all. “It is the cattle ranchers who are responsible for spreading that ugly rumor, and all because sheep do not behave like cows. Cows are herded from the rear by hooting cowboys with cracking whips, but that will not work with sheep at all. Stand behind them making loud noises and all the sheep will do is run around behind you, because they prefer to be led.”
You lead sheep, and they will not go anywhere that their shepherd does not go first, showing them that everything is alright. Sheep know their shepherd and their shepherd knows them. A shepherd can walk right through a sleeping flock without disturbing a single one of them, while a stranger could not step foot in the fold without causing pandemonium. Sheep & shepherds develop a language of their own.
Being a shepherd requires patience, kindness, and presence, all things that Jesus offers those of us who follows him. He offers comfort and reassurance to all of those who listen to his voice.
Because sheep doesn’t just know a shepherd’s voice. A sheep learns it as the sheep follows the shepherd, learning that the shepherd’s voice means food and shelter and safety. The shepherd can’t just tell the sheep to trust him.
Have you ever argued a sheep into doing what you want it to do? Chances are good the sheep will blink at you and then go do whatever it wants, usually following the rest of the sheep wherever they are going.
The questioners at the beginning of the passage today are not Jesus’ sheep because they do not trust him. They aren’t interested in following his ways. And no amount of argument or proof is going to convince them, so Jesus doesn’t bother.
Instead he uses a metaphor they will understand. The sheep will follow me. Not because I argued with them or because I offered firm proof, but because they already know me. They know I am who I say I am because they follow my teachings. And so it is with all of us.
A large part of belief depends on what we do. We may say all we like that we believe Christ is our Lord in savior, but if we don’t follow Christ’s teachings, how much belief do we really have?
Which is more convincing? Someone who tells you that they think that there are far too many people going hungry in our community or someone who goes around working in food pantries to make sure people have enough to eat. Who really believes something needs to be done about the problem?
Most of us come to belief not through a creed or a cleverly worded sermon, but from the daily, hourly business of belonging to Jesus’s flock — of walking in the footsteps of the Shepherd, living in the company of fellow sheep, and following our shepherd’s call through rocky hills, hidden pastures, and deeply shadowed valleys.
The Jewish authorities wanted proof before they would accept Jesus as the Messiah. We often demand the same: “Prove it, God: Prove to me that you’re really here; prove to me that you’re really taking care of my situation; give me proof, then I’ll believe.”
The message of Jesus in the scriptures seems to suggest something else: “Follow me, visit the sick and hungry, relieve the oppressed, receive little children, welcome the outcast. Do these things in my name, and then you will believe.”
Creeds and theology matter. They help shape and influence and guide us. But simply sharing a creed with someone won’t help them believe themselves. That takes an invitation to join in the walk, to accompany the sheep as they follow the shepherd. That’s when people start to believe, when they see the way the sheep live. The early church grew dramatically, not through doctrines or creeds, but because people experienced the living lord. Sermons and creeds help people to know more and to grow and deepen their faith.
But talking about the scripture isn’t enough to know the voice of our shepherd. We must follow where he calls. Our Shepherd calls us even today.
The voice of God, the voice of Jesus, calls out to us across the ages, across time and space, through the words of scripture, through communion, through one another’s ministries of comfort, support, and grace. The voice of Jesus calls out to the lost, the lonely, the forsaken, the hopeless, and the burdened. Age after age, hour by hour, every day of the year, that precious voice keeps calling to everyone.
To hear the voice of the Shepherd is to do God’s will. It is to love our neighbor, and to forgive even when we have been badly hurt. It is to keep before us the incredible vision of God’s persistent love for a bunch of sometimes cranky people. It is to move forward without proof into this world and do our best to share love with those we meet.
Our Shepherd calls. What will you do?