The Good Shepherd Discourse that we hear this Sunday comes right after Jesus heals the man born blind who was betrayed by his parents and then kicked out of the synagogue by the Pharisees. Even though the man born blind experienced this hurtful rejection from the people he trusted he still musters the strength to trust in Jesus.
His trust is quite remarkable because often when we are betrayed by those we trust we make an inner vow to never trust anyone again—even God. The problem with this common reaction is that we simply cannot live a full joyful life without trust. How do we know we can trust Jesus or anyone else when our heart has been so wounded by betrayal? How can we learn to trust again? Jesus answers this question by calling us to trust him just like sheep trust their shepherd.
To understand this call of Jesus we must ﬁrst take a look at sheepherding practices in ancient Israel and the biology of a sheep. At the time of Jesus, and even now in Israel, all the sheep of a village would be herded into a common sheepfold for protection which was either a large cave or a fenced in pen that was protected by a gate and a gatekeeper. Often the gatekeepers would also be the sheep gate themselves by sleeping at the mouth of the cave or pen. They would use their bodies to block the sheep from wandering oﬀ and to stop robbers or wolves from stealing the sheep.
In the morning the shepherds would come to take their sheep out to pasture to eat. Yet, how would the shepherds separate their ﬂock from the common fold? Do they brand their sheep like we do with cattle? No, the shepherds would simply come and call out to their sheep who would recognize their voice and only their sheep would follow them into pasture. The other sheep would stay and wait for their own shepherd to come even if they were hungry and want to go to pasture. Would a pig wait for his personal swineherd? Or a dog wait for its master if it were hungry? Think also of a cowboy coming on horseback and calling out to his cows in large mixed herd. Would the cattle follow him? Most likely not because cowboys have to round-up their cows and identify them by the special brands of their ranch.
How is this possible? This is remarkable practice is partially due to the fact that sheep have their eyes on the side of their head and they can see in a ﬁeld of vision of about three hundred degrees. This helps them see danger behind them. By contrast humans have their eyes on the front of their head and they can see only in a ﬁeld of vision of one hundred and eighty degrees. However, the drawback for sheep is that they have very poor depth perception but they make up for their poor eye sight by having a keen sense of hearing. They also have a very good memory and ability to identify personal voices. This is why lambs can always identify the voice of their mother's bleat as well as a shepherd's voice. Sheep are also very relational and they can identify ﬁfty diﬀerent faces at a time. Sheep are also loyal and even emotional animals who like to stay in packs and will be sad at the death of a friend and defend their friends when they are attacked. .
Also, often shepherds in Israel at the time would risk their lives for their sheep. Would a cowboy risk his life for a cow? Or a swineherd risk his life for a hog? This all shows that there is something special and personal about the relationship between a sheep and their shepherd.
What does this mean for us? It means we can trust our heart when we hear the voice of Jesus call us. He is not a robber who comes to steal kill and destroy like the Pharisees who reject the man born blind. Jesus is the true shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep and leads them to the pastures of abundant and eternal life. The Father is the gatekeeper who sends Jesus the Good Shepherd into our world to save us. Jesus also is the gate who only lets true shepherds like the apostles and their successors into the sheepfold.
But the question remains how do we know if it is the voice of Jesus that he hear? Can we trust the ears of our heart to discern his voice? The best way to train our hearts to hear his voice is the read his word. As we prayerfully read the Word of God our hearts will become more sensitive to his personal voice. Also as we prayerfully read the Word we will experience his love for us which will heal betrayal wounds in our heart and give us the courage needed to trust him again. Then we will be like the man born blind who even after a betrayal has the courage to trust and ﬁnd abundant life in Jesus the Good Shepherd.