Today, when a free society like ours puts so much stress on personal independence and resourcefulness, Jesus’ reference to his followers as “sheep” may be very jarring to some of them. I think that fewer and fewer people want to look upon themselves as sheep — at least not if that means being mindless followers.
And yet it’s obvious that he doesn’t regard the title as being at all demeaning to us. So what did he have in mind by choosing such a term?
I’ve always assumed it was the strong bond that exists between the sheep and their shepherd. He knows them individually by name, loves them tenderly, cares for them as he cares for himself. He identifies them also by the unique, sometimes odd or funny, characteristics they display.
In return, the sheep trust and in their own way love the shepherd. They feel secure in his presence and somehow know that their good is his primary concern. There is no question here of manipulation or control, no surrendering of right or freedom. It is, rather, the very person of the shepherd in whom the sheep find their fullest selves. They are happier, healthier and more alive when he is there. Actually, they would be incomplete without the love they exchange with him.
I believe that is what Jesus is stressing above all in this homely analogy he uses: that because there are no limits to the loving concern of the shepherd for the sheep, there are no limits to the depth of life the sheep can achieve.
We should expect, I’d say, that in an age of unprecedented exploration like our own, we would find ourselves going not only outward and upward but inward, too. And that is precisely what’s happening. The same civilization that reaches out into the strange and uncharted realms of space looks into itself as well and into the fascinating mystery of the human person. Prayer movements, that seem to be increasing in number and membership today, center both on the corporate person of the community and the private person of the individual. All kinds of people, from every walk of life imaginable, are reporting finding up-to-now unrealized strength and peace by entering prayerfully into themselves in regular meditation with others.
The Good Shepherd offers us a friendship, a relationship, so deep and personal that in it we can resolve life’s most distressing problems and discover what good can and will come from them. No one is really free who feels trapped by the futility of life’s tragic happenings. But the Good Shepherd, having experienced himself the life-death-life continuum has earned the authority to reassure us that the patience and perseverance with which we carry our crosses lead us, invariably, to a new sharing in the love and life of God.
We profess Jesus, the Good Shepherd, to be the gateway to life. We have only to work at knowing him better by listening to the words he has spoken, by being present to him in silent expectation, and by learning to think about, and to interpret, life as he does. He calls us, not to conformity and slavery, but to freedom and unfettered life!