It is unlikely that Jesus ever worked for gainful employment as a shepherd. Tradition (not scripture) tells us that he learned his father's trade and worked as a carpenter. He is called "rabbi" or "teacher" in some of the gospel stories which may or may not indicate a field of employment. Although we may not be able to pinpoint and exact "job description" for him, we can say with some certainty that when we speak of Jesus as the "Good Shepherd" we are not naming his "job." We are not speaking of him as someone who excelled in those skills needed for the care and protection of sheep. He probably never, even once, stood on a grassy hillside, with crook in hand, and stood vigilantly over a herd of grazing sheep.
Yet, it is safe to say that just as a shepherd who not only keeps his sheep alive, but provides for them abundantly - abundant grass, abundant water - and therefore his sheep are held in the highest favor; so will those who follow Jesus find and abundant and favored life. We learn something about Jesus and about ourselves from John's image: a shepherd is to his sheep, as Jesus is to the faithful.
The dynamics between sheep and shepherd seem simple, but are really quite profound. On the surface, the shepherd leads the sheep out to the pasture, where they fill themselves on grass, and then return to the safety of the sheepfold. Nothing to it.
But in reality, there is much more to the relationship in order for the sheep to not only survive but to flourish. Firstly, the sheep have to trust the shepherd to lead them to place of good grass and clean water. The shepherd needs to know the territory, the surrounding area, and its current conditions either by personal observation or through the qualified reporting of other trusted shepherds. The shepherd must build a positive track record of consistently leading his sheep to good feeding grounds or else they may start resisting his leadership. Who wants to follow a shepherd who repeatedly leads the sheep to dry or sparse grassland and to foul water?
Secondly, the sheep need to know the look, the voice, and the ways of the trusted shepherd so that they do not follow an impostor. I have been told by people who have spent time working on sheep ranches that sheep are among God's dumber animals. Most sheep are completely unable to recognize danger even when it is staring them in the face. Their best hope for survival is their ability to recognize their good and protective shepherd who can not only lead, but also protect.
And thirdly, the shepherd must have a clear idea of what is best for sheep. He must spend time considering the life and the condition of a different kind of animal than himself in order to base in leadership toward one area of vegetation or another. Do sheep grow best on grass, wheat, barley, weeds, or some kind of leaves? Of all the choices in the plant world, which are best, which are merely okay, and which must be avoided at all costs?
It turns out that shepherding carries with it tremendous responsibility.
And so, the community to which John addresses his gospel was satisfied to have Jesus bear responsibility for shepherding them in their faith. For John's community these three elements described their relationship with the Christ: recognition and trust, which then put them on a "plan" or a "program" to live abundant, full, meaningful, and even holy lives.
Notice that all the statements about shepherding in this morning's gospel reading are true as they relate to real sheep and real shepherds. But this is no manual for sheep husbandry. John's purpose is not to teach the basics of shepherding as if it were some lost art. John writes in order to deepen the faith of the people and the community to which he belongs. His community found itself with specific challenges regarding their life of faith. One of those specifics is that because John probably wrote his gospel some sixty or more years after the crucifixion, many in his community never knew Jesus of Nazareth personally. He is writing for the benefit of those who "have not seen, and yet believe." (Of course, all of us are in that category as well.) How, then, shall they (and us) understand Jesus?
Here, imbedded amid stories of healings and feedings is one way: Jesus is a trusted leader who calls us out by name, and leads us to places that will bring us a fulfilling life. Others may come and call us to follow them, but they may lead us to places of destruction and death.
The irony in all of this is that when we follow the Christ, it seems, it appears, it looks like we are being led to death and destruction. Following Christ means taking up a cross. The plan or program leading to abundant life involves dying. Dying to trivial life, dying to meaningless life; dying to life that may be abundant in "things" but is ultimately wrapped tightly around itself. The pathway to a deeper level of life requires a death. And that is why it is so terribly important to recognize the Christ, and to trust him. Most of us are going to resist death. We will not willingly or gladly take up our own crosses much less accept the crosses thrust upon us. We want to have the "life" first and let the "death" follow later; as much later as possible. But this shepherd, Jesus, knows what is best for us, has himself been there before, and can be trusted. The fullest and most abundant life comes when "death" occurs before "life," not after.
The world rejects this as folly. Conventional wisdom, even common sense, tells us that death means death and any possibility of life is snuffed out. The world promotes numerous "thieves, bandits and strangers" who preach life first, and grab just as much of as you can, because dark death a waits us all. These do not know us "sheep" at our deepest level. They do not know what is ultimately best for us. For them, death means death and only death. For the Christ, death means life, and life abundant.
When God leads people into deaths of one sort or another, a fuller life awaits them afterwards. Remember Joseph who was presumed dead by his father, Israel, only to show up later as advisor to Pharaoh. Joseph saved his people from famine. Remember Moses who led the Israelites into the desert and after three days they cried out to God because they feared they would soon die. God had to put their slave mentality to death, and once they could begin taking some responsibility for themselves (i.e., crying out) God provided water and manna. Remember the exiles who under the Babylonian oppressor slew their errant faithlessness. They returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple and re-establish the Law; a new era of faithfulness was begun. There are many things worse than death. One of which is to be condemned to a shallow and mediocre life.
But Christ calls us out, calls us each by name and leads us, as a shepherd leads his sheep, along a pathway he has walked before us. For those who trust in him and have the courage to follow, a life abundant awaits.