My knowledge about sheep and shepherds is rather limited. In the Polish mountains the shepherds lead a herd of sheep onto the highland meadows when winter is gone. They stay with the sheep all summer, staying in sheds. They have to stay, because of wild animals like bears, wolves and lynxes. The shepherds protect the sheep, but they wouldn’t ever lay their lives down for them.
The Scottish way of being a shepherd seems to be different. I don’t want to upset anybody, but it seems to me as an observer that sheep are not supervised all the time. They walk on the hillside, limited just by fences; sometimes not even that. They are not endangered to the same extend by predators, but rather by weather and terrain and disease. Once when I was walking on the hills close to Tomnavoulin I passed through a meadow. The sheep ran away from me – hardly surprising, given in my appearance. A few minutes later I looked back and saw the same sheep gathering and following the farmer’s vehicle. It was carrying food. I doubt whether the farmer called the sheep by their names. The sheep just saw the food and followed.
These two different descriptions of shepherding are completely different from today’s gospel. I’m sure that the words of Jesus about the good shepherd were completely different from his audience’s experience. When we read the gospels we very often encounter moments, when Jesus exaggerates. Here is an example: “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Mk 10,25). Jesus uses exaggeration to shake people out of an accustomed way of thinking. We find exactly the same method in today’s gospel. The people are told about a good shepherd, who lays down his life for his sheep. He knows each one by name. That was unfamiliar – completely different from their experience. They must have been astonished.
But Jesus wasn’t trying to tell them how to be a good farmer. This is not a description of a good owner of sheep. Rather, in these words Jesus reveals how amazingly and incredibly wonderful his love is for each person.
Our way of loving is limited by time, by physical circumstances and by feelings. We have to share our time among many duties and responsibilities; we have to share our love for the members of our family and for friends. Only God is able to know the name of each one; only God is able to love each one with full, undivided love; only God is able to pay full attention to each one. So if we need love, attention and understanding we can find them fully only in God.