God's sheep

"My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand".

I have no idea where the species originated or how it evolved but for thousands of years rearing sheep seems to have been the primary industry of the hilly regions of Mediterranean lands, gradually spreading northwards across Europe and eventually reaching these islands.

This being so, it is not surprising that the imagery of sheep and shepherds should permeate not only biblical and classical literature but also our everyday speech and discourse. Mediaeval Mystery Plays, Elizabethan drama and 17th century Court masques, Romantic poetry, nursery rhymes and children's stories are populated with them. As are the turns of phrase which we use in everyday speech. We count sheep to help us fall asleep. We may be fleeced by some unscrupulous individual or have the wool pulled over our eyes. We smile at mutton got up to look like lamb. We speak of someone looking sheepish or of the risky bravado of being hanged for a sheep as for a lamb.

Yet although we rely on them for a surprising number of metaphors and images, sheep do not particularly enjoy our respect and, indeed, some of the phrases have a pejorative edge to them. At best we think of sheep as harmless enough creatures but we tend to regard them as stupid and silly, easily panicked and stampeded, bewildered and all over the place unless someone takes them in hand and manages them.

Yet in spite of that there is something in the make-up of a sheep which might be worth noting (and perhaps even imitating) and that is the quality of non-assertiveness. Wanting to be someone, wanting to cut a figure in the world's eyes and to be counted for something seems to be a deep human need, perhaps as basic as the need for shelter, for food and clothing. We need to be somebody and sometimes we are driven by this need to be a figure of consequence into playing for the attention and the applause of others. The fourth Evangelist's wry comment about the Pharisees is equally true of us; like them we are inclined to love "human glory more than the glory which comes from God".

In connection with that observation it is worth bearing in mind that in Hebrew the word for "glory" is also the word for "weight" - "weight" not in the sense of pounds and ounces but in the sense of making a weighty intervention in a debate, a weighty contribution to a discussion. We human beings long for this weightiness, this glory.

Jesus, who is the glory of Israel, shows us the way of having glory which does not involve throwing one's weight around by being over-bearing or self promoting.

We are to enjoy personal weight, not by dominating others or playing for their attention or their admiration but by placing the way we matter outside ourselves in the glory of being disciples of him who did not "seek his own glory but the glory of him who sent him". We are to identify and renounce all the habitual strategies of self-advertisement if we are to reach what St Paul calls "an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure". In a culture which is obsessed with success and celebrity and the cult of the individual, such renunciation is demanding and costly.

Jesus claims to be the one who in the midst of the world's delusions and fantasies gives us the true sense of our worth and significance. In today's Gospel reading we hear him say that he knows his "own...my sheep hear my voice and I know them and they follow me".

In saying this, Jesus is referring to the way in which, in his time, shepherds and sheep related to each other. I don't know how it is these days in the Middle East but certainly until the recent past the relationship between shepherd and sheep was different from how it is with us. In the Middle East, sheep were kept mainly for their milk and for their wool, not primarily as a source of meat. Consequently, the shepherd and his sheep might be together for eight or nine years, long enough for the shepherd to know his sheep individually. Furthermore, each shepherd had his own particular call which his sheep would recognise and follow. The shepherd would go first, leading the flock into places where he knew they would be safe and where they would find pasture.

In speaking of himself as the Good Shepherd, Jesus is drawing on the Old Testament image of God as the "Shepherd of Israel", calling his people and leading them into the security and good pasture of a "land flowing with milk and honey...a good land and broad...a land that stretches afar". As the Shepherd of Israel, the Good Shepherd, he calls his own by name - Abraham, Moses, Samuel, Saul of Tarsus - and they hear his voice and they follow him. He calls them by name, he identifies them, thereby giving them their sense of worth, their weight, their glory. "I have called you by name, you are mine...you are precious in my eyes and honoured and I love you".

That, we believe, is the basic truth about each one of us - that he calls us by name: "from the body of my mother he has named my name". Therein lies our real significance and our true worth - not in the approval of "Fortune in men's eyes", not in the applause of the gallery but in that the Good Shepherd calls us, names us and in doing so gives us eternal life, the assurance that if we hear and follow, we shall not perish and that no one shall snatch us out of his hand.

Eric Simmons CR