If Christ is the shepherd we must be the sheep, and we might ask whether it feels altogether comfortable to be cast in that role. Sheep, after all, are useful creatures, but can be very troublesome. They go missing, they get themselves into tricky situations, things go wrong with them, they need a lot of looking after – just like people, do I hear you say?
It is well illustrated by Holman Hunt in his familiar painting Our English Coasts, which shows a flock of cute, delightfully woolly sheep who are straying dangerously near the edge of a steep cliff. One of them has ventured further down and is caught in a bush. Two others have been eating something they shouldn’t and are lying down looking very unwell.
A companion painting by the same artist depicts the cause of the trouble – the shepherd who is neglecting his duties to lounge around with his sweetheart. It is pointedly called The Hireling Shepherd, which makes one think that Hunt must have had the Gospels in mind. As Jesus says, the hired shepherd who works for payment has no real concern for the sheep and may well run away if a wolf attacks them. He himself by contrast is the
G o o d Shepherd because he knows his sheep and is known by them. He is willing to do anything to keep them safe, even give up his own life.
Readers of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd may recall the scene in which the shepherd Gabriel Oak saves Bathsheba’s flock who have been gorging on clover, making their stomachs swell up. The only way is to make an incision into the stomach to let the gas out, but it has to be in exactly the right place – otherwise you kill the sheep – something that needs great skill and a steady hand.
In Christ we can trust that we have who knows what we need and will always care for us in the right way. It may feel uncomfortable sometimes to allow ourselves to be on the receiving end of his care – there are those sharp pinpricks that deflate our pretensions about our self-sufficiency – but if we are honest we will admit that this is the care we need and be glad that God wants to give us his Son as our Good Shepherd.
Yours in Christ, Fr. Robin.