A familiar voice

In your mind, picture a flock of sheep. What do you see?

I think of green rolling hills. The sheep dot the landscape, mostly in groups. A few may wander a bit further from the flock, but always under the watchful eye of a Sheltie (my favorite dog) or border collie. When it’s time to move, a shepherd drives them from behind.

But that’s not the image we need for John 10, in which Jesus claims to be the Good Shepherd.

Picture a courtyard, open to the sky, but walled in by stones. It may be attached to a house, or freestanding. There, milling about, are one or more flocks of sheep belonging to different owners. The sheep are safe from predators there. Access to the interior is through a single gate or door in the wall, and a doorkeeper allows only certain shepherds to enter — the ones known to the sheep.

When it’s time for a flock to go out, their shepherd goes in and calls to them. There’s no need for him to go in among the sheep, find the right ones, and drag them out. He calls them by name — and they come to him. Another man may try to do this, dressed the same way, calling out the same names. But if the sheep don’t hear the voice of the man they trust, they won’t come. They may even run away.

When the right shepherd calls, the sheep will follow behind. And he will lead them to the green pastures they want and need.

As we’ll see, this is the background imagery we need for Jesus’ next two “I Am” declarations in the gospel of John: “I am the gate for the sheep” (John 10:7, NRSV) and “I am the good shepherd” (10:11). The story is a continuation of what came before: the events in Jerusalem surrounding the Feast of Tabernacles and the healing of a man born blind.

As noted in a previous post, the formerly blind man was vengefully thrown out of the synagogue by the Pharisees for being a disciple of Jesus. When Jesus sought the man out, it was the first time the man had actually laid eyes on the one who had given him sight.

But he recognized Jesus’ voice. And when Jesus invited him to believe in the Son of Man, he did so without hesitation (John 9:35-38). After all, it was the Good Shepherd who called. And this particular sheep knew his voice.

Unfortunately, false shepherds abound. More on that in the next post.