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In chapter 10 of John’s Gospel Jesus uses two metaphors to describe himself and his role: the Good Shepherd and, somewhat confusingly, the gate for the sheep. Flocks of sheep in the time of Jesus in ancient Israel were tiny by our Australian standards. The shepherd would have known each one of the sheep. The best shepherds would defend the sheep against all manner of threats, including thieves and wolves, which Jesus mentions here in John’s Gospel. 

We have a lovely image of Jesus the Good Shepherd being prepared to lay down his life for the sheep. It is a reference to Jesus being prepared even to give up his life on the cross. It is a pastoral image of Jesus caring for us. I am reasonably confident that it is the origin of the term “Pastoral Care”. When we talk about pastoral care, the connection is back to Jesus caring for his sheep in the pasture.  

The image of the gate actually strengthens this link with pastoral care. If the shepherd was out in the hills of Palestine with the sheep, the enclosures for the sheep were often pretty basic: perhaps a cave, perhaps just a simple arrangement of thorny branches woven together. If a cave, the shepherd would then lie across the entrance to the enclosure at night-time. The shepherd would physically act as the gate. The sheep would have to get past the shepherd to get out. More significantly, though, thieves, wolves and mountain lions would have to get past the shepherd to get in. The shepherd’s life was on the line. 

There are many other things which we can draw from this passage, but I just want to mention one more. It is that God never gives up on us. We have in our Chapel an idyllic, stained-glass window of the Christ the Good Shepherd carrying a lamb. It is a comforting image. Christ is gently carrying the lamb, surrounded by some of the sheep belonging to the flock. It is a truly beautiful piece of art.  

The window also reminds us of another biblical passage from St Luke’s Gospel, in which Jesus describes the shepherd not giving up on the one lost sheep, even though he still had 99 other sheep in the flock. God is like a shepherd who seeks out the lost and carries them home on his shoulders. It’s a passage which says that each one of us is important to God, even if we have lost our way, indeed especially if we have lost our way. The window, the Gospel passage from John, and the passage from Luke about the 99 sheep safe at home and the one sheep lost in the wilderness but found by the shepherd, all give us comfort.  

That said, I don’t always picture these passages in the same way that our window depicts them. Of course, I still talk to the Junior School students in these terms: the lovely picture of Jesus searching for the lost little lamb and gently carrying it home. I still appreciate and wonder at the beauty of the window.  

Yet, I have a slightly different picture of this scene in my own mind now. When we lose our way, sometimes we are just lost and need a friendly person to carry us home, but sometimes it’s because we have made foolish decisions.  

So, I have a slightly different metaphor to leave you with. Richard Rohr, an American Franciscan monk, whose reflections I read on-line, says that the image we should imagine is not a beautiful little lamb. The little lamb is not the sheep that gets lost and is then rescued by the shepherd – the sheep that gets lost is the annoying old ram, who has outlived his usefulness, but he still has a bit of spark and energy. He’s grumpy, he causes problems, he’s constantly getting into fights with the other sheep, and has to be brought back into line by the shepherd. He is the one who gets lost. The average shepherd thinks, “Good riddance. Thank God he’s lost!” The grumpy, old ram covered in dirt, his wool matted, his skin torn, he is the one the Good Shepherd searches for night and day in the wilderness, heaves onto his shoulders, and carries home. 

The Reverend Dr Theo McCall
School Chaplain