Raising sheep was an important business in Jesus time. I have probably pointed this fact out before. During Passover, every household would take part in sacrificing a lamb as they remembered how God delivered their ancestors out of Egypt. Then, it was the need for the blood of a lamb to be sprinkled over the door post –As a sign for the angel of death to “Passover” their household. Their instructions were to roast the lamb and to eat all of it. In Jesus time people came from all over, probably 10,000s strong to participate in the celebration of Passover. Some estimate there could have been 80,000 people or more in and around Jerusalem during the Passover. Can you imagine the number of lambs demanded for this one celebration? Beyond this lambs were regularly sacrificed at the temple. So, we are talking about a world where lambs were probably almost everywhere. Along with the sheep come the shepherds. Someone was required to watch over and raise all these critters.
When Jesus started talking about sheep and shepherds, he was dwelling on a part of life that was quite common for his listeners. Everyone understood the nature of the animals and the work of the shepherds. This was a part of their culture and upbringing.
However, I must point out that I know very little about being a shepherd or sheep. I did not grow up raising animals. My neighbor raised a few cows, but they were not usually my concern unless I should find them in our garden. I would always visit the barns at the county fair to admire the livestock, but once again I neither took an animal to the fair nor took one home. My world and really for most of us; our world is different than Jesus’ world. Therefore, it is worthwhile to wonder what we can learn from such images.
Some ideas seem clear. There are the concepts: that a good shepherd protects the sheep; the good shepherd is recognized by the sheep and follows the shepherd; even that the sheep are known by name. However, if sheep are livestock and raised for a given purpose, I must wonder how likely it is that sheep are named or always obedient in nature? I wonder if in real life were a lion to show up that the shepherd will not just count one less sheep and call it a day, rather than confront a wild beast. Perhaps there is a difference between what is and what lessons are drawn. Perhaps this difference is intentional and should cause us to realize that Jesus lesson is not really about sheep, but about something deeper. His lesson is about God and the salvation God is giving to the world through Jesus.
Maybe we can hear the words and realize that our world is not perfect, but God is. In a perfect world the shepherd and the sheep live out a perfect symbiotic relationship. The sheep live in obedience to the shepherd and the shepherd lives in absolute love and care for the sheep. Every sheep is named, and every sheep that belongs hears and responds to only the shepherd. These images are not complete in the reality of life. Maybe that is why the Bible tells us that the disciples did not understand Jesus words. The truth that is being pointed to is the truth of life found in our relationship with God through Jesus Christ.
Jesus is the good shepherd calling his own, and we who harken to the Spirit are drawn to the truths we are given. Maybe ever sheep is not named, but every hair on our head is numbered by God. Maybe not every sheep is saved but everyone who calls upon the name of Jesus will be. There is a place of splendor and it is Jesus fine pleasure to bring each of us there.
I do not really know much about sheep, but our prayers for the life God offers us is certainly worthwhile. God will do as God has promised.