Reflections on the Gospel By Art Pittman
As I considered today’s Gospel—having just read Psalm 23—I found myself drawn to Christ’s description of Himself as our shepherd. It is not the first time Jesus has been defined this way (see also Hebrews 13:20; 1 Peter 5:4). What is it about the relationship between shepherds and their sheep, that we find so compelling as we struggle to understand our relationship with God?
I started by asking the holy Oracle of Google whether shepherds can actually recognize their individual sheep. I was brought to thewoolchannel.com and a post by Clara Parkes on May 20, 2021, titled: How Well do Shepherds Know their Sheep? There is a link in her post to an article in Scientific American (dated November 9, 2001) that cites a study (by Keith Kendrick at the Babraham Institute) which found evidence that sheep could recognize other sheep and human beings. That is, perhaps, not all that surprising.
The Wool Channel web page also provided me a link that allowed me to watch a “sheep recognition experiment” that was originally broadcast on the BBC on February 19, 1963. A journalist marked three sheep from a different farm (on their stomachs where it was not visible) and put them in a shepherd’s flock. He then brought the shepherd to his flock—comprised of around a hundred animals that looked exactly alike to me—and asked if the shepherd could locate the three sheep which did not belong. The shepherd did this without difficulty. When asked how he did this, the shepherd said he wasn’t sure—he just knew his sheep because he was always watching over them to make sure they were healthy and to take care of them, so he recognized the ones that didn’t belong. The shepherd then commented that picking the animals that didn’t belong wasn’t actually much of a challenge, because he could actually identify and distinguish each of his sheep individually. Testing this claim, the journalist went into the flock and selected several sheep at random. The shepherd easily identified each of his sheep (which the journalist confirmed using a number tattoo on their ears) and was able to recite the history and lineage of each particular animal.
In today’s readings, we are reminded that God is our shepherd. God takes us to green pastures, comforts us as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, and ensures that goodness and mercy shall follow us for all the days in our lives (Psalm 23). God will guide us to springs of the water of life and will ensure that we hunger no more and thirst no more (Revelation 7:9-17). And God will give us eternal life so we will never perish (John 10:22-30).
God as our shepherd—caring for us, protecting us, providing for us, guiding us—is a powerful and profound expression of God’s unconditional love and grace for each and every one of us. And yet, while I believe this analogy is accurate, I am reminded of the story of the three blindfolded men who were asked to describe an elephant—one felt the tail, one felt the side, and one felt a single leg. Each of the three men accurately described one aspect of the elephant, but each interpretation was incomplete as it related to the animal as a whole.
The image of God as our shepherd is reassuring, and has comforted me during my times of trouble. But while this interpretation is accurate, I believe it is also incomplete. As Jesus tells us in John 10:27: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” We are not called to be sheep that passively benefit from God’s love and protection, we are called to follow Jesus—to do God’s work.
In Paul’s letter to the Philippians (Philippians 4:13) he says: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” We are still sheep—weak and vulnerable. And our relationship with God will always be defined by God’s role as our shepherd: protecting us, loving us, guiding us. But as sheep who hear His voice and follow Him, I believe Jesus is also calling and empowering us to act more like sheep dogs—showing God’s love to other sheep on behalf of the shepherd we serve.
Yours in Christ,