When I was growing up, we had some sheep. We didn’t have a lot of them, maybe only 30 at the most, but we had a few. They aren’t terribly high maintenance animals, but you have to keep an eye on them. You can’t let them into a wheat field or corn field, or they’ll eat until they founder (which means they die from overeating). They’re easily spooked and take off running at the oddest times. They always decided they had to be on the other side of the driveway as we were coming down the road, or they would stay put standing on the driveway, chewing the grass on the edge, until you nudged them with the fender. Once, Mom ran up onto the fleece of one animal and had to back up so the poor thing could run away. They are vulnerable to wolves and other predators. They will overheat in the summertime; you have to keep an eye on them when they’re lambing. And every spring before it gets too hot, you have to shear them so you can use the wool or else it will fall off and get lost. They aren’t terribly bright: they aren’t the dumbest animals in the world, but they’re in the running.
Shepherds in the Holy Land have a well defined life cycle. In that place, your livelihood and your life depends on the flocks. You wander from place to place looking for grazing area and fresh water, and everything you have to live on you get from the flocks: food, clothing, tools. It hasn’t changed much to today, although when I saw a shepherd and his flock a few years ago on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, he had a Walkman. I guess today they all have cell phones.
But sheep always listen to the voice of their master. They have to; they know that the shepherd is the one their survival depends on. Even when flocks get mixed up, a call from the master will get his flock moving his direction. It may take a while for them to get there, but sooner or later they will.
For us to consider ourselves sheep and Jesus as our shepherd can seem a bit cynical. We can look at human nature and wonder how dumb some people can be, and how folks can believe ridiculous things or follow obvious weird people who five minutes of logical reflection would tell you what’s really going on. P.T. Barnum once said, “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.” It’s easy to see ourselves as sheep once we get a handle on what sheep are like.
The remarkable thing about the situation is Jesus’ relationship with us. Jesus is the shepherd who gives up his life for the sheep. That’s incredible: as a former shepherd, I can tell you that you try as best you can to keep your animals alive, but hey, if you lose one or two of them, they can be replaced. Jesus the good shepherd is the one who doesn’t draw his livelihood from the sheep, we don’t have anything that Jesus particularly needs, but who takes what we have to offer and uses it for others. Jesus the good shepherd is the one who tends the sheep so that they can live for one another, which is something that real sheep aren’t that good at. They kind of graze in the same area, but they don’t pay much attention to each other unless somebody stars running, or they need to stay warm at night.
How do we respond to the voice of Jesus our shepherd? It is that response that lead Paul and Barnabas out on their journeys. They didn’t always have a great reception: today they are shaking the dust off their feet because some people threw them out of town. Later on in the story, Paul is stoned and manages to recover, and usually when they come to town, they don’t get much of a reception in the first place they enter.
But the voice of Jesus calls us to the kingdom. It is the kingdom that our second reading talks about, the multitude who have washed their clothes in the blood of the Lamb. It is the kingdom of the good shepherd, who gives his life for the sheep, the one who sits on the throne and who shelters the flock, providing food and drink and wiping away every tear. Something that’s really amazing is that how we hear the voice of the Good Shepherd and respond to it can help others hear the voice for themselves.
The meal we share today is that feast of heaven that we are promised. Our sharing in the body and blood of Christ is that reality of the kingdom present here and now. We come here because we have heard the shepherd’s voice. We come to be fed and comforted. And we come to listen to the one who says, “Follow me.” As we hear the voice of the good shepherd, we may not be called to be wanders like Paul and Barnabas, but how is the Good Shepherd calling us?