Good Shepherd

by Bailey Pylant, DBU Alumna

Day 5 of Advent

Today's Reading

John 10:11

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” John 10:11

The shepherding metaphor must have landed well with biblical-era farmers. It does little for my 21st-century metropolitan brain. I live in Texas. Beef cows are more our thing. And unfortunately, David did not write, “The Lord is my cowboy; I shall not want.”

Scripture’s “Good Shepherd” language is consistent and specific. The shepherd-sheep relationship is somehow distinct. Other livestock substitutions, not applicable.

When approaching the table of John 10, my mental arsenal has little to offer. Honestly, the first image my brain pulls for reference is Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd. A landowner finds her sheep lying, bloated, and near death. The farmer, a former shepherd, locates space between their ribs and punctures the lungs, releasing a deadly gas. The sheep’s bellies deflate and they go on their merry way.

Can sheep really be this nonsensically helpless? Do shepherds actually provide this type of 24/7 critical care?

Phillip Keller, in A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23, says yes.

“He Maketh Me to Lie Down in Green Pastures”

“The strange thing about sheep is that because of their very make-up, it is almost impossible for them to be made to lie down unless four requirements are met…. They refuse to lie down unless they are free of all fear… free from friction with others of their kind…free from torment by flies or parasites…. free from hunger.”

“He Leadeth Me Beside the Still Waters”

“I watched one day (as sheep) were being led down to a magnificent mountain stream…. On the way, several stubborn ewes and their lambs stopped, instead, to drink from small, dirty, muddy pools… obviously contaminated with nematodes and liver fluke eggs that would eventually riddle them with internal parasites and diseases.”

He Restoreth My Soul

“Those intimately acquainted with sheep and their habits understand the significance of a ‘cast’ sheep…. This is an old English term for a sheep that has turned over on its back and cannot get up again by itself…If the owner does not arrive on the scene within a reasonably short time, the sheep with die. A heavy, fat, or long-fleeced sheep will lie down comfortably… Suddenly the center of gravity shifts so that it turns on its back …. As it lies there struggling, gases begin to build up in the rumen…they retard and cut off blood circulation…. a cast sheep can die in a few hours.”

“Thou Anointest My Head with Oil”

“Sheep are especially troubled by the….little flies (that) buzz about the sheep’s head, attempting to deposit their eggs on the damp, mucous membranes of the sheep’s nose….they work their way up the nasal passages into the sheep’s head…. The sheep will deliberately beat their heads against trees, rocks…. In extreme cases of intense infestation, a sheep may even kill itself in a frenzied endeavor to gain respite from the aggravation. Often advanced stages…will lead to blindness.”

This is the distinctive nature of sheep.

While reading, I found myself chuckling at my metaphorical resemblance; smiling like I did as a child, hoping my parents would find disobedience cute.

That’s generally how I leave passages about our Good Shepherd – viewing myself as the casual recipient of insane grace. A little spoiled. A lot blasé.

If you are like me, it requires intentional focus to shift one’s gaze towards the shepherd.

“The Lord is My Shepherd; I Shall Not Want”

“From early dawn until late at night this utterly self-less shepherd is alert to the welfare of His flock. For the diligent sheepman rises early and goes out first thing… It is (the) initial, intimate contact of the day. With a practiced, searching, sympathetic eye he examines the sheep to see that they are fit and content… In an instant, he can tell if they have been molested during the night – whether any are ill or if there are some which require special attention.”

“He Maketh Me to Lie Down…”

“A good shepherd will apply various types of insect repellents to his sheep. He will see that they are dipped to clear their fleeces of ticks. And he will see that there are shelter belts of trees and bush…. It takes time and labor and expensive chemicals to do the job thoroughly.”

“…in Green Pastures”

“Green pastures were the product of tremendous labor, time and skill in land use… the result of clearing rough, rocky land; of tearing out brush and roots and stumps; of deep plowing and careful soil preparation; of seeding and planting special grains and legumes; of irrigating with water and husbanding with care the crops of forage that would feed the flocks. If sheep were to enjoy green pastures amid the brown, barren hills it meant (the shepherd) had a tremendous job to do.”

“He Leadeth Me Beside the Still Waters”

“Water for sheep came from three main sources… dew on the grass, deep wells, or spring and streams. The good shepherd, the diligent manager, makes sure that his sheep can be out and grazing on this dew-drenched vegetation… everything (hinges) upon the diligence of the owner.”

“Thou Preparest A Table Before Me”

“Early in the season, (the shepherd) will go ahead and make preliminary survey trips into the rough, wild country…. He will check to see if there are poisonous weeds appearing, and if so, he will plan his grazing program to avoid them… He will open the springs that may have become overgrown.”

This is the nature of shepherds - well, human shepherds. Jesus is all that and more: “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father, and I lay down my life for the sheep.”

The nature of our God is unmatched. He is the one true God. The only God who offers shepherd-grade care to creatures that take more than they give – more accurately, to creatures who have nothing good to give.

Just as sheep live or die by the proactive concern of their shepherd, we live or die by the proactive grace of our Savior.