Sheep, for the most part, are an abstraction to me. I see them in photos and videos from time to time, but as a city dweller, my up-close encounters with them have been limited.
That changed a bit last summer though, on a vacation trip to Scotland and Ireland. When you get away from the cities in either country, you find sheep practically everywhere.
You also discover pretty quickly that they’re not the brightest animals God put on the planet.
Heck, the sheep I met last summer tended to make cattle seem like rocket scientists in comparison. Take, for instance, the cows we encountered while rounding the bend on one treacherous hillside road. Under the watchful eye of a bicycle-cowboy, the cattle didn’t need much more than a flexible rod to keep them marching single-file, along the narrow shoulder.
When we encountered THEM in the road, they tended to wander in flocks, all over the place –completely oblivious to the danger of passing vehicles.
Or maybe ‘trusting’ is a better word. Like the recently-shorn animals we visited in a sheepfold near Killybegs: As soon as we strangers wandered into their turf, much of the flock hustled on over towards us…looking to be fed.
All of which makes me scratch my head a bit when I hear what Jesus has to say about sheep in this Sunday’s Gospel passage.
But [sheep] will not follow a stranger; they will run away from him, because they do not recognize the voice of strangers.
Perhaps the sheep in 1st century Palestine were better trained—or more skittish—than those you find in Ireland today.
In any event, I find it instructive that the Lord compares the faithful to sheep.
Having met a few sheep last summer, I don’t find the image altogether flattering. Still, there’s a large measure of truth in it, especially when I consider just how easily I can be led astray.
And I find I can take comfort in the image, too.
Like the Pharisees that Jesus was trying teach that day, I may not always ‘realize what he was trying to tell them.’ But I can certainly appreciate the promise the Good Shepherd makes, to everyone in his flock:
I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved.
Let us pause now…to recall that we are in the presence of the Holy & Merciful One.