Sunday 3 May 2020
It’s hard to listen to today’s gospel reading and not be attracted by the charm of a simpler time. Raising sheep was a far different prospect in the time of Jesus to the large and complex business undertaking that it is today.
We probably have to blame the industrial revolution for that with the voracious appetite of the woollen mills for the wonderful fibre that is produced by the humble sheep.
I suppose the first thing that we would have noticed in Jesus’ time was how very few sheep the individual might own. No vast spreads of fenced land as we find in Australia. In another place, Jesus tells of someone having a hundred sheep and not wanting to lose one. So we can imagine that 100 sheep or less might be a reasonable number for an individual shepherd to own, but certainly not thousands.
Of course the shepherd would not have owned the land on which the sheep grazed during the day. That is why he could not fence it off. To protect the sheep, the shepherds in the village banded together to establish a common enclosure. Each day, they would come to the enclosure, go in and call their sheep, and lead them out through the gate of the enclosure.
Because of the size of the flocks, the sheep knew who they belonged to – we are told that they could identify the voice of their owner and that the shepherd knew his sheep so well that he could call them by name.
It is the security provided by the enclosure and its gate that made the undertaking viable. Without that, the shepherds would have to stay out all night guarding their sheep. You recall in Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth that this is what the shepherds were doing near Bethlehem on the night that Jesus was born. For some reason they had not returned to the village enclosure that night.
But you couldn’t raise sheep that way night after night. You would die of exhaustion – so the enclosure system was essential.
So the characteristic of these sheep enclosures was that they provided a safe place for the sheep. And Jesus emphasises this safety element by pointing out that those who wish to steal or harm the sheep have to climb over the walls and thus show themselves plainly to the village as being up to no good. He also claims for himself the image of the gate to the enclosure symbolising that it is he himself that provides the crucial element to the overall security of the enclosure system.
Often when we read the gospels, we expect to be challenged by their contents. We ask ourselves: “How do I react if I am going to be a true disciple of Jesus”?
But this passage did not really strike us with that note of challenge. Rather, it seems to contain the simple but profound assurance that Jesus is concerned for our safety and security. Jesus is concerned for our wellbeing.
Just as the gate of the sheepfold provided security to the village sheep; just as the familiarity between shepherd and sheep provide the sheep with security, that’s what Jesus does for us.
It is a very reassuring passage from the gospel. But we have to be very careful about how we construe this safety and security that Jesus provides. After all, we Christians are not immune from terribly graphic assaults on our safety and security in the normal course of life. The current pandemic is a case in point.
We have not been immune from physical, mental and emotional injuries in the day to day events that make up the fabric of our lives. We have probably all experienced personal tragedies or else been very close to them. How are we to understand what Jesus is suggesting in the gospel today – that he will keep us safe and secure?
It plainly is a reality at a deeper rather than at a surface level in our lives.
What sort of security is Jesus offering to us? Perhaps it is a security that reaches the very centre of our being. Perhaps it is a security that says no matter what happens in our lives, the very core of our being is still safely sheltered in Jesus’ love and care for us.
Psalm 34 has some verses that seem to poetically speak about this deep-seated assurance that we have in Jesus’ care for us.
Psalm 34 contains these words:
3 O praise the Lord with me:
let us exalt his name together.
4 For I sought the Lord’s help and he answered:
and he freed me from all my fears.
5 Look towards him and be bright with joy:
your faces shall not be ashamed.
6 Here is a wretch who cried, and the Lord heard me:
and saved me from all my troubles.
And later in the psalm we read:
17 The righteous cry; the Lord hears it:
and frees them from all their afflictions.
18 The Lord is close to those who are broken-hearted:
and the crushed in spirit he saves.
19 The trials of the righteous are many:
but our God delivers us from them all.
20 He guards all our bones:
so that not one is broken.
It seems that this is the sort of reassurance that we find in Jesus’ words to us in today’s gospel that he is the gate of the sheepfold and that his sheep know his voice. It does not mean that we will never know hardship and devastation, but it does mean that we will always find Jesus there ready to deliver us as we read in Psalm 34.
The safety and security that we find in Jesus is of this deep-seated kind and it should be the cause for us of enormous gratitude to he who is the Son of God, risen from the dead.
Archdeacon Allan Paulsen