What Does the Good Shepherd Look Like?

21 Apr, 2024

By the Rev’d Jim Lam

Season: The Fourth Sunday of Easter

Readings: Psalm 23 | Acts 4:5-12 | John 10:11-18

Psalm 23.  A psalm that most of us know by heart.  But can you recall who taught you the psalm and how you come to know it so well?

A Sunday school teacher decided to have her young class memorise Psalm 23.  She gave her pupils a month to learn the chapter, and arranged for them to recite it in front of the congregation. On the big day, the children stood up one by one and recited the psalm beautifully, melting the hearts of those gathered to hear them.  Then it was the turn of a very young child, who got so excited and nervous that he forgot most of the verses he learned as soon as he stepped up to the microphone.  But he tried his best and timidly began, “The Lord is my shepherd…. that’s all I need to know.”

Written around 1,000 BC, the ancient and beautiful words of Psalm 23 still reach across the centuries to touch us. It revealed God’s shepherd heart long before His Son proclaimed , “I am the good shepherd.”  It is interesting to note that throughout the long history of Israel, the people looked upon their Lord as their shepherd, as is evident in the multiple scriptures that elaborate on this theme.

Green pastures. Still waters. These are rich imageries that convey an impression of abundance, safety, and peace. They bring hope and comfort to the writer as well as the readers of the psalm alike.  Even for those in the deepest trouble, the good shepherd can and will give them protection and provisions, and grant them peace.

If we consider the shepherding practice in ancient Israel, we can appreciate even more the analogy that compares the relationship between God and his people and those between the shepherd and his sheep.  In those days, shepherd boys did not attend agricultural schools for a diploma in shepherding.  Instead, they learned through living with the flock from a young age.  And so, the shepherd knew his own, and his own knew him.  The flock of sheep was not placed in an enclosure and fed with fodder, or on a ranch where they can graze in safety.  Instead, the shepherd would lead his sheep to the wilderness, to pastures green so that they could be fed.

When the flock was on their way to greener pastures, it was important to keep an eye on them or they could easily get lost and fall prey to predators like wolves and foxes.  To ensure their safety, the shepherd would use his rod and staff to guide and direct the flock to keep them on the right way.  As they moved from one location to another and back, following the guidance of their shepherd, they completed a cycle in which they were fed, exercised, satiated and grew.  Not only did the shepherd know his work well, but he was passionate.  He had a very close relationship with his sheep.

For the Israelites in those times, the Lord as their shepherd was one of the most important hopes in their hearts.  Even when roads were rugged and life was hard beyond bearing, they believed in their Lord and Shepherd’s guiding hand.  They believed that there must be some purposes in their suffering. They believed that they would ultimately become stronger through the vicissitudes of life.  And Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd.”  What is that that distinguish a good shepherd from a not so good one, we may ask.  I would put it down to the matter of attitude.  In Jesus’ words, he told the difference between the good shepherd and the hired hand. 

During busy periods, when there were too many sheep to be tended to by the shepherd alone, others would be hired to help taking care of the flock.  The hired hands were paid to help out with jobs that the shepherd could not finish by himself.  And they were poles apart from the shepherd who grew up with the flock.  Should there be any dangers, like the attack of a wild animal, perhaps, the shepherd would stand by his sheep and did whatever he could to save and protect them, even at the price of his life.  But not so the hired hands.

Sometimes, wolves might test the shepherd’s determination to protect his sheep.  If it sensed fear, it might launch an attack.  But if the shepherd was valiant and stood firm, the wolf might back away, and the sheep would be safe.  This was especially so when the shepherd led his flock on a journey.  He must make a fire during night time, so that the sheep might rest safely and peacefully.  But the shepherd himself must remain vigilant to prevent thieves or wolves from stealing his sheep.

But in the case of the hired hand, sheep tending was just a job he was paid to do.  When there was threat of trouble or danger, they would choose their life over those of the flock.  But that was not so with the true shepherd.  As Jesus put it, not only would a good shepherd care for his sheep, but he would even laid down his life for them.  Tending sheep was more than a job or a profession.  It involved a compassionate heart that ministered to the needs of the flock. And this was because the shepherd cared.

We can think of the relationship between the shepherd’s caring acts and the sheep as a kind of covenant.  Just like the covenant between God and his people.  This comes out of a true compassionate heart, the way our Lord cares for us.  And in turn, he requires us to care and tend to the needs of the people among us and around us.  In All Saints’, the Foodbank, the Seasons For Growth, the Space, the Selwyn Centre, the Care Of Creation, the Garden Produce Swap and Share, and the Selwyn church Saturday Still Spot are just a few programmes that exemplify the spirit of caring and tending to the needs of our friends and neighbours.  For if we have love for one another, everyone will know that we are disciples of Jesus and apprenticing shepherds learning to follow in the footsteps of the good shepherd.

We are the flock of the good shepherd as well as practicing shepherds learning to care for the flock and those that does not belong to this fold.  Our good shepherd who laid down his life for us is calling us to give our love and life to care for others.  In so doing, we can keep growing in the likeness of him until someday we can be perfect, as our heavenly father is perfect. Amen.

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