There's a thing about figures of speech, it seems to me. They're hard to figure out. Today's gospel reading is a kind of figure of speech: an analogy.
A shepherd is someone who looks after the sheep but who really wants to be a sheep anyway? Except maybe when it's a choice between being on the right hand, as a sheep, rather than on the left hand, as a goat--if you recall that figure of speech elsewhere in the gospel. The sheep do better than the goats.
I was doing some reading just recently to find out a bit more about sheep. I don't know about you but I have not had a lot of exposure to sheep although I did have farmers in my family years ago. They had beef and dairy cattle, pigs and chickens but no sheep.
I discovered in my brief reading that sheep are not the brightest of creatures. Without guidance, they will over-graze the land where they are. They do not, on their own, move on to greener pastures; they just stay where they are and continue to graze until the land becomes barren and they are on the verge of starving because the land is all just dirt by that point.
Another thing… a wolf could be devouring one sheep while another sheep nearby would just continue to graze without concern as if to say to the puzzled but happy wolf, "Hey, good food here, eh?".
If they are not sheared, sheep become matted and dirty and their hygiene deteriorates to the extent that they become diseased. They do not know how to look after themselves on their own
I didn't know these things about sheep.
Another thing that I did not know was about a sheepfold. A sheepfold is a pen made up of rocks piled about 10 or so feet high to make an enclosure where the sheep can enter within the surrounding walls as a protection against wild marauding animals such as wolves or two-footed versions in the form of bandits and thieves who would steal the sheep.
In the evening, the shepherds would lead their flock to the sheepfold where a gate-keeper would let them enter into the protected area. (You know that story from the previous part of today's Gospel.) There would be several shepherds and so there would be several flocks. The shepherds would then leave the sheep with the gate-keeper who would stand guard while the shepherds went for food and rest.
Later the next day, the shepherds would return, call their sheep and go before them out of the sheepfold back to good grazing land. The sheep know the voice of their own shepherd and so they follow only their shepherd. That makes me think that maybe they're brighter than we first thought… or brighter in some ways, at least.
Anyway, one thing about sheep seems certain: they're followers. You and I probably would prefer to see ourselves as leaders rather than as followers.
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I was reading another story recently about a senior high school student who was applying to a renown university. One of the questions on the application was, "Are you a follower or a leader?" The young girl was honest and conscientious and knew that she was more of a follower than a leader. She answered the question by saying that she was a follower and she mailed off her application. After that, she wondered if she would not be accepted because of her answer.
She spent several anxious weeks while she awaited a response. After some time, she received a reply. The letter from the registrar read, "Dear applicant, A review of our applications this year reveals that we have 1,167 leaders. We are accepting you because we feel that it is imperative that they have at least one follower."
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Probably there are times when we are all followers and other times when we may be leaders. As a parent we would be leaders but on a team we may more often be a follower rather than a leader.
Anyway, at a deeper kind of level, there are likely many things that we have in common with the sheep in the story. There are times when we do feel the need for protection. There may be times when you and I feel lost and alone. There may be times when we feel stuck or even trapped in situations that we face. We may feel attacked by events in our lives or even at times attacked by an adversary. There are times when we feel vulnerable.
COVID-19 can do that to you.
It seems to me that's one of the components of the human condition. We are vulnerable and we do need protection. We need support, encouragement, acceptance, love and forgiveness. Human needs. We need to be called by name and to be recognized. Under those circumstances it is OK to be in need and to be a follower… It's part of being human.
I think that's what Jesus was telling us in his figure of speech. He is our shepherd and he also is the gateway to protection.
The point is though for you and I to listen so that we can recognize that voice in the midst of the many challenges and distractions that steal away our attention.
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What the voice says is that you are lovable, you are forgivable, you are a person of value who makes a difference. By hearing that simple message and by believing that simple message and by remembering that simple message, the gateway is open to us so that you and I may have life and have it abundantly.
Hearing the voice is what brings the abundance. Hearing the voice is what makes the difference as is knowing that the shepherd laid down his life for us so that we may heed his voice.
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