On Being the Sheep or the Gate
How are you on the realities of sheep? Looking back to my Sunday School days, I am not altogether convinced that my well-meaning teachers had the faintest idea what sheep and shepherds were really like, and still less idea of what they might have been like back in New Testament times. And who could blame the teachers? To the modern Westerner, with an increasingly urban, and I guess increasingly domesticated setting, the age old metaphors of Jesus the Good Shepherd, and Jesus as the gate are further and further removed from the farming realities which could only ever have been part of the day to day experiences of those who lived in first century Palestine.
The first lamb I saw close up in church was by courtesy of a rather unorthodox minister who wanted children to have vivid learning experiences in the slot set aside for children in the morning Church service. The Reverend John Watson’s version of emulating the good shepherd was to go out of the Vestry door and come back, acting the part of the caring shepherd in the Sunday School picture, complete with what was supposed to be an actual dear little living lamb enfolded in his arms.
Unfortunately, it was no longer Spring by the time he had got around to organising the demonstration with the help of a nearby farmer, and the lamb had grown somewhat. Neither dear nor little, the highly indignant animal also appeared to have taken the greatest offense to being held in such an undignified position. It bleated piteously and struggled ferociously. It kicked the minister so hard in the stomach he dropped the animal, and then, to the delight of the children, (and I suspect to the consternation of the more pious among the Sunday School teachers) it took off down the aisles with the Reverend John in hot pursuit.
That lamb was neither cuddly, nor easily handled! And the portrayal of the caring good shepherd wasn’t quite what I had anticipated either. However at the very least we should remember the images of Jesus the Good Shepherd caring for his sheep and Jesus the gate were clearly important to the early Christians and as a consequence at least deserve our continued contemplation. Such images might have a little more life breathed into them if we first checked that we who listen to such stories are ourselves familiar with the background.
The first point we might make is that modern sheep farming has virtually nothing in common to the lot of the first century Palestinian shepherds.
The stony and sparsely grassed hills of Palestine would not be recognised by modern farmers as farms because there would have been no fences around recognisable paddocks. Because the flocks had to range over vast areas to forage enough food, and in the absence of wire – let alone barbed wire, each small flock was accompanied day and night by a shepherd boy.
There were most certainly sheep folds, which were basically large pens with stone walls. But again to the modern farmer something would be missing. Without what to us are the familiar steel hinges, there were no gates, and the custom was for once the sheep were inside, the shepherd would lie across the gap. Those familiar with this practice would be able to relate to Jesus’ chosen image of being the gate.
With a shepherd as a gate, no sheep would escape during the night, and any wild animals which included feral dogs, wolves or even the occasional lion would first have to contend with the shepherd. In this context, a good shepherd would be expected to have genuine courage – if not to ward off the predatory animals – at the very least to keep the sheep safe from unscrupulous sheep thieves.
The other point, which is sometimes noted by the commentators, is that sheep with their notoriously poor eyesight and potential vulnerability needed to trust their shepherd. These days a modern shepherd or drover would no doubt keep the sheep in check with his dogs and more often than not would have a farm bike to take the drudgery out of the task.
In first century Palestine, the only recognition aid the shepherd could offer his sheep was his voice and since the sheep depended on him to stay close by they would have come to recognise that voice. When several shepherds combined their small flocks in the one pen for the night, the sheep would need to know which voice to respond to respond to so that they followed the right shepherd the next morning.
It may well have been that Jesus was intending his followers to have understood that since there would have been competing voices, it was up to them to keep following his voice or at least his wisdom, to have any chance at all of negotiating the dangers that beset them.
Mind you as with all parables or metaphorical allusions there remains a serious puzzle for today’s Christian.
In first century Palestine, those who had encountered Jesus face to face would have a reasonable chance to listen to his teaching and then to give his words priority in their lives. But even if we assume Jesus was somehow resurrected, the gospels teach that he is now no longer with us in person. Where then is our gate? Where then in the 21st Century is the good shepherd whose voice we must continue to follow?
One unfortunate truth to face is that when we consider the real dangers that have beset some communities over recent decades, for many victims Jesus’ promise appears to have rung hollow. There was no safe sheepfold – metaphorical or otherwise for the victims of the holocaust, no escape for the victims of religious persecution, no Jesus as a living gate to protect our predecessors when the wolves of famine, of armed aggression or of crippling disease were seeking their victims. Where then was the gate Jesus was claiming to be offering?
It is a reasonable question, because although genuine dangers may look very different to those in Jesus time, dangers are still present. In the same way that the sheep now have to contend with very different farm conditions and have a very different relationship with their shepherds, we too have had to come to terms with a different world. If Jesus had been teaching he would continue to be the gate we should be able to look back and find evidence in history that his protecting actions might continue to protect in the changed conditions when needed.
For the lucky ones amongst us, we might happen to have been born into happy circumstances, with loving mothers and supportive senior family members and it may even be that, at least for some of us, there are few immediate clouds on our horizon, yet no doubt even for the lucky, sooner or later problems will come our way. For that reason it seems to me that unless what Jesus was saying has a realistic part to play for the present generation we would find it hard to understand his words as continuing to have integrity .
Perhaps the problem is that traditionally the assumption has been that we are supposed to see ourselves as the equivalent of sheep in danger. Yet sheep seem a poor description for disciples. Don’t sheep follow the flock almost by instinct? Surely this is not what is expected of disciples. Sheep are not exactly a good model for disciples particularly if we see them as helpless victims in the game of life. If on the other hand we see ourselves as following the lead of our wisdom teacher in the person of Jesus, given that he is no longer physically present, perhaps, just perhaps, we are intended to take over where he left off. Parents and Church members alike need to accept the role of shepherds for the vulnerable.
If the danger is threatening, those who claim to represent Jesus should be looking to constructive ways of being the gate for those in danger.
In most modern communities the problems for those at risk are likely to be vastly different to those facing the first disciples. In many cities, certainly my home city, one of these dangers is that of the sale of marijuana substitutes to vulnerable young people.
It is a sad commentary that teenager addicts destroy their own lives and bring misery to their families. Don’t think with the recent law change the problem of drugs will go away when there is so much money to be made by selling drugs to mess up people’s lives. For those seeking to emulate Jesus what should their response to such a contemporary danger?
Another related danger is from those who seek to make money from selling alcohol to minors. If modern disciples are supposed to represent the gate, our mentioning such problems in passing as part of our intercessory prayers seems inadequate when something rather more concrete and direct seems called for. I guess disciples will be amongst those agitating for sensible law change.
For those of us living in the Pacific region, annual disasters in the form of hurricanes are common. Since we are hardly in the position to control the incidence of hurricanes, we can at least organise a prepared response. Wise church leadership advocates the preparation and distribution of carefully designed emergency boxes to areas vulnerable to natural disasters before the disasters strike. For me, this offers the opportunity to show the Church support for the type of wisdom Jesus advocated.
Individual problems are going to call upon very individual responses and there is no way of my telling you from the outside what situations are currently afflicting your community, nor what actions you will need to implement in your response. However, what I do know is that if no-one takes the task of protecting the vulnerable as a personal responsibility, the dangers will take their inevitable toll.
Jesus used the allusion of being the gate for the sheep to signify his willingness to put himself on the line for those at risk. Surely those who currently share that same willingness are his disciples for this generation. Our challenge is to find our own responses to share in such a mission.