Everyone is interested in numbers these days. At least that’s the way it seems. Have you ever tried to write a check for your purchase in a store? You pull out your checkbook and write out the check. The clerk takes it from you, looks at the information. Numbers tell where you live, numbers tell how to reach you. Then, as if that isn’t enough, the clerk asks for your driver’s license and a major credit card – and writes some more numbers on your check. Then, if approved, you may take your purchase home.
And, each year we file our income taxes. Pages and pages of numbers. When it is finally prepared, off it goes to the IRS. It would be nice to think that someone there knew us, someone who handled our returns personally every year. But, no such luck. They just send our numbers to the computer. It’s a necessary process. But, one could wish it were a bit more human – and personal.
And, have you ever called about a mistake on the billing of your credit card? You tell them of your problem and they don’t ask for your name, they ask for your number?
So, – the IRS knows us by our tax numbers, the state knows us by our driver’s license number, the bank knows us by our account number and our employer knows us by our Social Security number. On and on it goes. Everybody knows us by our numbers – but does anyone really know us?
The numbers game that is played in our culture is one symptom of the loneliness and alienation that surrounds us today. Especially during a pandemic. Loneliness, isolation, alienation. These are the realities of our contemporary civilized life. We just do not know people the way we used to know them. That is true here in urban America. It is true in rural America. We do not know, and we are not known by others, in a way that satisfies our human longing.
But, there is one who knows us. His words come to us from our Gospel text this morning where Jesus says: “I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me … “ So, there is someone who knows us after all. We may feel alone. We may feel more like a number than a person. We may feel like no one really knows us; no one really cares. But it is not true. We are not unknown.
We are known, and known intimately, by the very God who created us.
In today’s parable, Jesus identifies himself with one of the oldest vocations in the world. Tracking out the beginnings of the imagery in his words, we go back to some of the deepest roots of biblical history. First, we see Abraham, a Chaldean shepherd, who was the father of the Hebrew race and the beginning of the nation called Israel. Next, we see Jacob making his fortune among Laban’s flock. And we see his descendants given a separate dwelling place in the land of Goshen, because “every shepherd was an abomination to the Egyptians.” We see David taken from following the flocks – to be a king. We hear the poets and prophets of Israel speaking of their nation as the flock, and of God as the great Shepherd. Even the psalmist sang, “The Lord is my shepherd … “ And Isaiah wrote, “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd.”
Jesus took up the shepherd motif and filled it with utmost beauty because he filled it with himself. In today’s text he works out this theme in a detailed and meaningful analogy, and throughout it he pictures himself as the good shepherd who gives his life for the sheep.
This colorful imagery gives us a picture of tender care, the very purpose for which a shepherd exists – to nurture and protect his flock. The thieves, robbers, and wolves in the story are touches of color taken from the real-life of Palestine, where the pasture-land was often on the very borders of a great desert. As the shepherd cared for his flock, Jesus cared for people. He cared for those who did not even care for themselves; he cared for those who could not care for themselves. He cared for those who were often ignored or despised by the religion and customs of respectability in that day. And the good news today is that Christ still cares for every member of his flock.
The parable also gives us a picture of intimate knowledge. “He calls his own sheep by name, and leads them out and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.” He not only cared for people, he knew them better than they knew themselves. Perhaps it was because he knew them so well, that he cared for them so deeply. After all, knowledge and compassion are companion traits of a good shepherd. Perhaps some of us here today are thinking, “Does anyone really understand me?” Others may be thinking, “Does anyone really care what happens to me?” The good news of the gospel is that Christ both understands and cares – he is the good shepherd.
Now, this is the fourth Sunday of Easter. We are three weeks beyond the greatest event in human history. And we hear the risen Christ himself explaining that the whole purpose of that stupendous miracle called Easter was to provide care and sanctuary for the lost sheep of the world. This is the first, and greatest, message from this parable of the good shepherd.
But, there is a second message, running concurrently under the surface. This message speaks of our own calling to care for others, even as Christ cares for his own. Each of us has a place in the service of the Good Shepherd. In the fold there are many hungry mouths to feed, many weak souls to protect and care for. Out in the wilderness of sorrow and sin, there are many foolish and weary ones who are straying. Each of us has a place of trust in this great pasture of life. There is at least a small circle which depends upon us for peace and happiness and spiritual safety. We all have partly in our keeping some of the precious things in other souls. How are we to meet this awesome responsibility? How can we be sure that we do not fail in this sacred trust?
In the parable of the good shepherd, Jesus not only teaches us where to place our faith but also how to do our work. I believe he meant for us to catch and follow his example of compassion, devotion, vigilance, courage, and sacrifice. In our relationship with others, we are called to share in the support of each other. We are called to share that others may have necessities. And, sometimes we are called to stand by, in what seems like utter helplessness, while others find their way. All of this has to do with intimate knowledge and tender care. All of this has to do with following the one who says: “I am the good shepherd.”
So . . . no, we are not just another number. And, no, we are not unknown and alone in life. For, as Jesus says: “I know my own – and my own know me.”