Herding Sheep: A Christian Perspective

Painting of jesus as the good shepherd
Herding Sheep: A Christian Perspective

About the Author

Reverend Dr. Morar Murray-Hayes

Reverend Dr. Morar Murray-Hayes

The Reverend Dr. Morar Murray-Hayes is the Minister of Maple Grove United Church, and is a member of the Interfaith Councill of Halton. A chatty extrovert with a conversational preaching style, a multi-tasker who is a “multi-worrier” when it comes to caring about people’s problems, and a leader who treasures teaming with the lay people in her church, Morar says that at Maple Grove she has experienced “a deeper level of ministry than I thought possible.” Anyone who has personally received Morar’s deeply compassionate caring and wise counsel will testify to what an inspirational, healing and encouraging ministry it is.

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Who is Jesus? The Gospel writer John shows us who Jesus is by offering us signs — acts of Jesus that reveal his nature, his character.

In the tenth chapter of John’s gospel, he uses two metaphors. One might ask, ‘how can Jesus be a door and a shepherd at the same time?’

Early in the chapter John 10.7-10, John has Jesus saying that he is the door, or the gate of the sheep pen. The shut gate keeps the sheep safe at night and they go through the open gate into the good pastures during the day.

Later, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.” John 10.11-18

The Good Shepherd image that illustrates this article is painted on the walls of an underground cemetery. The early Christians were breaking the law when they got together, so they built these catacombs underground where they buried their dead, and they could hang out together without being captured. The Callisto catacomb was the earliest Christian cemetery in Rome. This is the oldest picture that we have of Jesus, from no later than 250 CE.

Why did the early Christians paint Jesus as a shepherd? They painted this picture because he told them he was the good shepherd.

After Jesus died on the cross and came back to life on Easter, he taught the disciples more about how they could carry on without him. He knew it was going to be really hard to live without him. If you have lost someone, you know how hard it is to carry on.

Jesus knew that’s how the disciples would feel when Jesus left them to be in heaven with God. So he told them things that would remind them of him and keep them following his teachings.

What were shepherds like in Jesus’ time? Scholars surmise that the life of a shepherd was dangerous, risky, menial. Shepherds were rough around the edges, spending time in the fields rather than in polite society. One suggested they were trusted about as much as the stereotypical used car salesperson would be today. Their nights were hard: they would have to protect the sheep from wild animals and sheep thieves.

I spent two months working as a shepherd and goatherd. And I have to say, sheep are thick as posts. They are impossible to reason with, have no sense that the safe barn that they left in the morning is going to be safe at night. They are skittish and stubborn, impossible to lead and equally impossible to herd.

When Jesus told the disciples that he was the good shepherd who would

  1. protect them,
  2. feed them with what they needed to live their lives the way God wanted and
  3. lead them all through their lives,

I am fully convinced that Jesus was a good shepherd who was willing to die so that the sheep might live.

And that’s what the story of the cross is all about.

Someone said, “until we experience the sacrifice of love, we have no concept of what the Good Shepherd is doing.”

If you’ve been a shepherd, you will know just how much Jesus was willing to sacrifice for us.

I mentioned the image of Jesus being the gate. If we were literalists, we wouldn’t see anything more that sheep being protected at night and eating grass during the day. When we realize that this is a metaphor, there is so much more wisdom here.

Jesus is the gate which opens to bring the frightened sheep into safety — moments of crisis — closing around us with love and protection.

And Jesus is the gate that opens up to the green pasture that is eternal life. When we read about the task of those early shepherds, the good shepherd would actually become the gate — sleeping across the opening to the pen at night to keep out all evil.

Well that was what Jesus was like. And that’s what God is like. The gospel leads us to remember to whom we belong. ‘I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.’ In moments of crisis, we are to know that we belong to Jesus.

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