Signpost for Sunday 26 April 2015: Acts 4:5-12; Ps 23; 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18
I had lots of jobs in my younger days, perhaps about twenty, but I have never been a shepherd. I have helped dip sheep (one day; and I sweated a great deal!) and I worked in several departments of a freezing works. In these, a shepherd kept the sheep up to the dip or to the sticking pen. But both lacked a personal relationship of worker to sheep.
I have seen Asian tourists stop at the roadside to photograph sheep. For them, they were cute! Different is the North Otago monument to the farmer responsible for organising the first shipment of frozen sheep meat to Britain. Nothing sentimental about meat exports, as we found to our cost when the European Union began to bite into our produce.
My older son, now a farmer, had a small flock of black and coloured sheep when he was still at high school. We had a trailer, and he had lots of friends with bits of land all round South Otago, so I have shifted sheep often enough, but I am still not a shepherd. My main remaining impression of sheep is that they were a bit stupid, and easily scared. I cannot imagine having a personal relationship with sheep.
The biblical pictures of sheep are very personal. David is sent to look after the family’s sheep (strictly speaking, his father’s sheep!) since he is the youngest – the cheap option? When David was king, he knew that his sheep, his people, belonged to his father, his God.
There are different pictures about sheep and shepherds in the warnings of Ezekiel. He attacks those who should be shepherds but are not because of their rapacity. There is no caring relationship here. Criminality is a denial of personal relationship. It reduces other people to targets or to puppets to be manipulated.
All the imagery of the Shepherd Psalm comes from the sort of shepherding that the young David is pictured as doing. It is very different from any of today’s shepherding. There are no dogs to round up the strays. There are no mobs of hundreds of sheep. There are no fences and gates on hinges to contain them. There are no injections or other things that sound so disgusting when they are advertised on Television at meal times.
Winston Churchill said that dogs look up to us and cats look down on us, but pigs treat us as equals. He prefers pigs. Sheep are puzzled by us, but they can be led or guided if we are careful.
David’s sheep needed personal treatment for their ills. They needed shelter from adverse conditions and defence from predators. Sometimes there were walls, and sometimes “gates”, perhaps a roll of prickly branches to keep the gap shut. But above all the was the constant awareness of the shepherd.
The same imagery as in the Shepherd Psalm is behind the parable of the lost sheep and the ninety-nine.