As a city boy, I know nothing of sheep-herding from personal experience, but I was raised Roman Catholic, so I know what it’s like to BE a sheep. I know what it’s like to be shepherded by men more interested in their careers and egos than my spiritual welfare. I’ve also seen sheep on television being herded by horses and dogs, who actually seemed to be more competent shepherds than many of my previous pastors. There are also real shepherds in the Middle East and Asia Minor who still herd sheep the old-school way, on foot, and with a crook. From what I can tell about this method, it’s more like mothering than anything else. These shepherds evidently don’t have to crack a whip or blow a whistle. The sheep know the shepherd’s voice, and will follow him as if he were the surrogate mother. They say that even when herds are mixed in with other herds, once each shepherd says the word and starts on his way, that shepherd’s sheep know his voice, and separate off from the others, following their own leader.
This old-school shepherding is more like mothering than leadership, and the sheep are more like children or puppies than sheep. That’s why I don’t hesitate to use the metaphor of “mother” to describe God. God has many characteristics, including some motherly ones. For instance, in the familiar Psalm 23, which is the Psalm we sang just a little bit ago, God is pictured much like a mother, as a nurturer and a feeder, a protector and leader.
I also believe that the “father” metaphor is valid, and even necessary from an historical viewpoint because God’s relationship to Jesus is so intimate and close, that Jesus himself calls God “abba” or “daddy”. The metaphor of God as mother is important, however, because we see that side of God in Jesus. When God came into the world in the person of this Jesus, God revelation of Godself was not as a strict disciplinarian or an angry judge or a distant, awesome God but rather, as a kind, compassionate, embracing, motherly God.
In today’s Gospel Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” We’ve all seen nature shows on TV where a mother bear will sacrifice her life for the cubs, or a doe will lead hunters away from the fawn, or a mother bird will fake an injury, in order to attract a predator away from the nest. A good mother does that instinctively, without hesitation, with total self-sacrifice. I have even heard tell of chickens sitting on top of their young, refusing to abandon their chicks in the henhouse, even when the building is on fire, sacrificing themselves to save the lives of their young chicks.
Maybe that’s why, in Matthew 23, Jesus looks down over the city and cries: “O Jerusalem, how often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were not interested.”
So, what does this mean for us? It means first of all, that we must be sure we’re following our shepherd–not a human leader, a president or hero or other important person. We also need to resist following any leaders in the church, unless they, like the Old Testament prophets before them, draw attention away from themselves and to God as the ultimate Shepherd. John the Baptist had a tremendous following in his time, but even he asked his disciples to follow Jesus, saying, “He must increase, and I must decrease.” Those words are, I think, central to any credible ministry in the church. If ever there was a time in history when the church needs good self-effacing leaders, its’ today.
In the past, priests and bishops and popes were eager to have people believe that they possessed special powers or attributes that rendered them as something better than human. They made special claims for their authority and inevitably set themselves up as having powers that by right belong only to God. When that happens, we hurt ourselves, we hurt our credibility with others, we hurt the people of God, and we further delay the coming of the Reign of God. There is only ONE Shepherd, our loving Father/Mother who reveals the fullness of life in the Son, Jesus the Christ. And since each of us hears that voice of God within us in our own way, we dare not judge each other for following a path different.
There is an implication in today’s readings that I want to focus on for a moment, namely, that we ourselves assist the Shepherd in guiding the sheep. That means we should be gentle with those we see who are caught up in harmful choices and decisions. Each sheep is precious to God, and we dare not judge any of them. If you recall, Jesus did not condemn the woman caught in adultery, he simply encouraged her to “Go and sin no more.” He felt compassion for Judas who betrayed him, and for Peter who denied him, and for all the others who abandoned him. He told us again and again: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. He was kind not only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, but also to the hated Samaritans and other foreigners. He kept company with the most ostracized and the ones deemed most sinful. He went into the highways and byways, the gentlemen’s clubs and the gay bars, the homeless shelters and the hospitals, inviting everyone he met into the Kingdom of God. The sick, the blind, the lame, the emotionally scarred, the rejected, the least loved—all of these have always found a special place in the heart of this Jesus.
That’s because he isn’t a hired hand. He is the Shepherd. Strays are important to him, and we need to know that because in our own ways, you and I, too, go astray. We get lost in our own illusions of self-sufficiency and pride. We turn down opportunities for ministering to other sheep because we are too busy or too focused on other tasks. We even refuse to minister to ourselves in times when we need to retreat from the world and simply rest in the silence and celebrate the gift of ourselves. That, too, is ministry, one that we neglect to our peril.
So let us be good listeners. Let us be gentle with others. Let us be motherly to those who are struggling or lost, even when they don’t realize how far from home they have wandered. Let us be gentle and forgiving of ourselves first and foremost. Until we experience our own forgiveness and acceptance, we can never really forgive or accept anyone else. God has brought each of us to this time and place, to keep this divine appointment. As we ourselves have been welcomed home, let us extend the same welcome to others, including the ones we would not ordinarily socialize with, the ones who dress differently than we do, the ones who see things differently, the ones who don’t even like us. Jesus reminds us tonight, “I have other sheep that do not yet belong to this fold. I must mother them also, so they will listen to my voice. And someday, there will truly be one flock, and one shepherd.”