The Lord is my shepherd… Everyone knows and loves the words of Psalm 23. And many, in fact most, want to hear them again and again. There have been almost fifty funerals in our parish since the beginning of this year. 99.9 percent of the families have chosen this psalm to bid farewell to their loved one. The comforting confidence of the opening words of the psalmist go right to the heart, as does the peaceful pastoral imagery evoked in what follows. Christians sometimes mistakenly believe that the words come from the New Testament, so familiar are they with the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. For that we owe both the parable of the shepherd who goes in search of the lost sheep in St. Luke’s Gospel and Jesus’ shepherd and sheep talk in chapter ten of St. John’s Gospel, from which is taken today’s reading.
I too like the image of Jesus as the Shepherd and after so many funerals I can now sing Psalm 23 in ten or so different settings in English or Spanish. But sometimes it pays to think again about even the most familiar and comforting of images. I like Jesus as the Good Shepherd, but on reflection I wonder why I, or we, should like very much being compared to sheep.
Sheep have the reputation of being one of the stupidest of animals in God’s creation. St. Luke’s parable is endearing but it is not the most comforting story when you realize that the 99 were left to fend for themselves because that one stupid sheep ran off and got lost. And stupidity is the issue in today’s Gospel reading as well. The Pharisees (presumably) just couldn’t get the simple figure of speech used by Jesus—“they did not understand what he was saying to them.” Jesus is here comparing himself to the door or gate through which the sheep pass in and out to pasture. The image proved too complicated for his hearers. In what follows (vv. 11-21) Jesus will try again, this time comparing himself to the shepherd of the sheep. He has no better success; for they conclude that he must be mad (v. 20) and they won’t listen to him anymore.
The seemingly invincible stupidity of his hearers calls to mind the reputed dimwittedness of sheep. (Are we really always that one stupid beast who got itself lost?) That is what I feel a little uneasy about. Yeah, it’s great to have a good shepherd! But it is not so great to be a stupid sheep! Sometime last year I raised this Christian self-image problem with my mass congregations. At first they were taken aback because they, like me, love the image of the Lord is my shepherd. In the end, though, they did have to agree that the “Lord is my Shepherd” imagery is comforting but the “I am a stupid sheep” is rather less so. At the end of mass, a woman came to me and explained that she had been a sheep farmer for most of her life and that I was really very ignorant in telling people that sheep were stupid: “If you only knew them as I know them, you would understand better…” Her words only made me feel, well, more like a stupid sheep. So I, a human being, not a sheep, set about to inform myself. According to scientists at Oxford and Cambridge universities, it turns out that sheep are not as stupid as I (we, the Bible) once believed. One science correspondent of a national daily reveals that ‘they are far more intelligent than they have been given credit for.” Thanks be to God! There is hope yet for me! The same reports that “they (sheep) have relatively advanced learning capabilities, are adaptable, can map out their surroundings…and may even be able to plan ahead.” Now, that gives one hope. My ignorance isn’t invincible. I can learn, I can adapt, find my place in the world, and even (maybe) get to my destination without getting lost. Modern science and one woman’s sheep farming experience reveal the truth of the Gospel.
Christ remains our Good Shepherd. We hear and know his voice. I don’t want us to stop praying the Lord is my shepherd. I don’t want us to stop celebrating Good Shepherd Sunday. But I do want us to understand that we Christians are not supposed to remain stupid sheep. We are not supposed to be always on the verge of getting lost. Being human and not sheep, how much more can we learn, adapt, grow—and change. It’s that the Good Shepherd has done for us his people, who were but once a flock of stupid sheep.