Under her senior picture in the school yearbook, Rita was given the distinction of being ‘The Most Likely to Succeed.’ I don’t know if they do that anymore in yearbooks, but in 1977 Rita was the one for her class. She was a friend to everyone and she was brilliant. No one was surprised when she was named the class valedictorian. Rita’s parents were wealthy and they made sure she was given every opportunity to succeed. She got into a top Ivy League school and had big plans for an important career.
In the summer after her third year of college, Rita did some volunteer work at an inner-city church. When it was time to return to school, she decided that what she was doing in the inner city was too important to quit; so she decided to quit school. For the next two decades Rita dedicated her life to her work in that broken neighborhood; finding homes for abandoned children, getting teenagers into drug counseling, breaking up fights, getting women out of abusive relationships, helping families find affordable housing, and teaching Sunday School. There was always more to do, and she kept trying to do it all, literally working herself to death. She was not quite 40 years old when she died of overwork and over-caring. After the funeral, one of Rita’s high-school friends said, “What a waste. She could have done so much with her life.”
Jesus once said to his disciples, “I am the Good Shepherd; the good shepherd lays down his life for his friends.” Was that a waste? Perhaps Jesus could have done something better with his life. Jesus added, “The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. But I am the Good Shepherd. I know my sheep and my sheep know me; and I lay down my life for the sheep.” In almost all of that tenth chapter of John, Jesus is describing what it means that he is our Good Shepherd.
We are the sheep. This is a common Biblical image for God’s people in the Old and New Testaments. The ever popular 23rd Psalm also uses that image of a shepherd and sheep. But what does it mean to be compared to sheep? In our culture, it is an insult to refer to someone as a pig. In the 1960’s policemen were often called pigs by the young radicals who despised them. Eating too much or too fast is sometimes called ‘pigging-out.’ My wife sometimes says the inside of my car looks like a pig-pen. None of these references are complimentary.
The Bible’s use of the image of sheep for us may not be intended as an insult, but I don’t think the image was used primarily to enhance our self-esteem either. There were sheep all over the place back then, and people knew what sheep were like. Actually, sheep are much dumber than pigs. Pigs are some of the more intelligent of domestic farm animals, whereas sheep are among the dumbest. On a cold night, for example, sheep will pile themselves on one another for warmth, which isn’t a bad idea. But sometimes they will make such a pile as to smother to death those on the bottom, which isn’t a good idea for them. Sheep are so dumb they will run right off a cliff if they are frightened, and it doesn’t take much to frighten them. Sheep are not particularly clean, nor are they very cuddly, except perhaps when they are small and just had a bath. Pigs will least get vicious and mean in a fight to protect their young, but sheep are timid and helpless.
Yet, Jesus refers to us as sheep. And Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.” Why would anyone give up his or her life for one, or even a whole flock of sheep? What a waste that would be! It is one thing to give one’s life for one’s family, or best friend, or for one’s country. But to sacrifice one’s life for sheep? Is any animal worth so great a cost? Why should a shepherd risk leaving his wife a widow and his children fatherless for some sheep? It is an outrageous thought.
Jesus went on to say: “The hired hand who does not own the sheep sees a wolf coming and runs. He runs because he does not care for the sheep.” But when you think of it, maybe the hired hand runs simply because he is a good judge of the value of his own life over and above the life of some sheep. That sounds to me like good common sense.
I read one time about a man who had gone out in a boat fishing with some friends. It was windy and the man’s cap blew off. He impulsively reached for it, fell into the icy water, and drowned. What a waste for a $6.00 cap! Every once in a while we hear on the news of someone falling to their death while posing to take a selfie. Again, not worth it!
Jesus pushes this illustration to the extreme to show what it meant for him to die for us. “The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” For sheep. For whom did Jesus die? For the crowds that shouted “Blessed is He” and “Hosanna” on Palm Sunday, and “Crucify Him” on Friday of the same week, all following the herd this way and then that way like sheep. Jesus died for his twelve disciples, and for the many others who abandoned him; for all who scattered like scared sheep when the going got rough, just like Jesus said they would. And Jesus died for Pontius Pilate, who condemned Jesus after declaring him innocent because Pilate was afraid; timid, like a sheep. And Jesus died for us, timid as we are with our lukewarm faith, half-hearted obedience, and lack of trust. (continued…)
John 10:11-14 — (Jesus said), “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.”
Shepherds search for their lost sheep, but for their own profit. Men seek their lost property, but out of self-interest. Politicians visit foreign countries, but only out of political calculation. But why have you searched for me, O Lord? Why have you sought me out? Why have you visited this hostile world where I live? Why have you ransomed me with your blood? I am not worthy of such effort. Indeed, in my sin I have willfully tried to escape from you, so you would not find me. I have wanted to become a god unto myself, deciding for myself what is good and bad according to my own whims and lusts. I have provoked you and insulted you. Why do you bother with me?
–Tychon of Zadonsk, Russian peasant monk (1724-1783)