I grew up around Higginsville, Missouri and I spent about half my childhood on a small farm: about 40 acres, a weekend farm. We put in a field of wheat some years, and had pigs, chickens, geese, dogs and sheep. It wasn’t a huge flock, I don’t think we ever had more than 30 of them, but it was enough. Since we didn’t have a huge farm, we had to feed them grain also, and I had to sprint to get the feed down the trough before they knocked me over. There was lambing time and shearing time, time to take them to the market. They stayed together for heat in the wintertime, and to cool each other off in the summer by breathing on one another. They would rest by leaning against one another, and the sheer numbers would keep most solitary predators away. Sheep were the first animals we got and they last my parents got rid of. I was very interested to see shepherds and sheep when I was in the Holy Land: in Galilee at Capernaum I saw a flock go by with their shepherd and they looked like they could have walked out of 2000 years ago, except that the shepherd had a Walkman (I’m sure they all have iPods today). In downtown Amman, Jordan, flocks of sheep tied up traffic as they wandered through town.
There is one thing that is different in Jesus’ time from my direct experience. When I called my dad’s sheep, they ignored me unless I called the border collie, at which point they ran away. In the Holy Land, flocks get mixed together, particularly in the village sheep pen, and so they only respond to the voice of their shepherd and will follow him out when he calls to them. They do not respond to anyone who calls them, and if a stranger approaches they will try to run away or at least mill around in the pen and draw the attention of the person watching them. The sheep know that the shepherd will lead them to pastureland and water and will protect them against the dangers of the arid mountains of the Holy Land.
There are many voices that call to us, promising good grazing, protection, fulfillment. In today’s culture they are frequently the voices of selfishness. A popular soft drink ad proclaims: Obey your thirst. Satisfying your desires is more important than anything else: go out and get yours and then figure out how to deal with everything else and everyone else. Look out for you and yours and don’t worry about anyone; they don’t matter. You can deal with any unfortunate consequences later, in fact if you’re lucky, you might be able to get away with it. Obey your thirst; look out for number 1. Other people matter only if they can help you, and you can give up anything you want if what you get is what you want. Obey your thirst; getting what you want is everything. Anyone who says otherwise is not smart; anyone who says otherwise is not on your side, and you should ignore them.
Jesus our shepherd calls us to care for one another. Jesus reminds us that we cannot look out for ourselves completely: we are prey to a multitude of dangers that threaten to rob us of our soul, both from the inside and the outside. If we always look to satisfy our own needs first, we can lose the sense of the flock which we depend upon. When we are alone, we are vulnerable. If we eat all the grass in the area, then not only does everyone else go hungry, we go hungry in the long run, also. If we wander off too far by ourselves we have no way to keep warm, no one to lean up against to rest, and we area lone to the solitary predators. Our selfishness can be as dangerous as a lone sheep in the wilderness, and in that way we can be our own worst enemies. Jesus promises us true safety, even from ourselves. And Jesus is trustworthy, because he is the shepherd who has given his life for us, has shown us that the way to gain all is to give up all.
Our savior calls us together to share the base of what we need, just like we supplemented our flock’s feed on the farm. What we receive is our basic spiritual food and drink that will keep us going even when the landscape we travel is barren. We come together as his flock to share his Body and Blood, which binds us to our shepherd and to one another more closely. We come together here to listen to the voice of our shepherd, who leads us to everlasting life.