I have a hard time imagining a shepherd’s life. One summer, I helped out on a small farm, and I got to know the animals pretty well. The cattle had names. The chickens didn’t—at least I don’t remember that they did—but I still got to know them. The horses, of course, had names, but I never got to ride them (didn’t ask). There were no sheep, but if there were they might have had names.
That summer, I was definitely a hireling, and, although I wanted to do a good job, I never would have considered laying down my life for any of them. I did lie down on the ground and help tag a young bull calf and got peed on a good bit, but I don’t think my life was ever really in danger. Had it been in jeopardy, I almost certainly would have run the other way. Was I a bad hireling? Perhaps. Could I have been a good farmer? Probably not, but I’m not sure even the best of farmers or shepherds is really willing to sacrifice his life for the herd. Then again, maybe I have a hard time imagining what it means to be a good shepherd.
In today’s Gospel lesson (John 10:1-18), Jesus introduces himself as the Good Shepherd—the one who lays down his life for the sheep. He knows his sheep by name, and they hear and know his voice. When the wolf comes, he does not flee but stays to protect the flock—even if it costs him his life. To me, that’s foolishness. What is a sheep? What are ten sheep? What are a hundred sheep? How many sheep is one shepherd’s life worth? Sheep are simple creatures that are raised for a purpose. Why would anyone want to die for some stupid sheep?
I don’t think God holds us in the same regard with which I hold sheep, but still…he’s God, and we’re us. And yet he gives up his life for us. I can understand giving up one’s life for family and friends and maybe even a complete stranger in an act of selflessness, but Jesus did something more like giving up one’s life for a bunch of livestock. Who does that? Who loves sheep that much?