Throughout history people have chosen certain animals as symbols of themselves. American Indians were given, or chose for themselves, names such as “Running Bear” and “Crazy Horse”. In the world of sports this ancient tradition continues. Many sporting teams have animals as their symbols. Some of the favourites are lions, tigers, bears, eagles. These animals are chosen for the obvious reason that they represent speed, strength and courage – the kind of characteristics that we human beings like to believe about ourselves. It is not surprising that the Bible also employs this technique of animal symbolism but the emphasis is very different. Only rarely do the writers of Sacred Scripture compare people to wild creatures such as lions and tigers. They do occasionally but not often. By far their number one choice of an animal as a symbol for humanity is a sheep.
It is not without significance that the Bible uses domestic sheep to symbolize people. Sheep are some of the most vulnerable and dependant of all creatures. They lack the strength and weapons to stand and fight. They do not have speed to flee and escape. They desperately need the help of someone who cares about them and is able to care for them. This is the major emphasis of the Gospel story this weekend. Jesus wants us to know that we are safe and secure under His care. We can depend on him to provide for our needs. This does not mean that we are free from responsibilities or don’t have to play our part. It simply means that if we do our best He will take up the flack. We are going to make it and our needs will be met. We can also depend on him for guidance. One of the most certain things about life is its uncertainty. We just don’t know what is out there. Tomorrow is a hidden secret. What it holds shall remain a mystery until we get there. Travellers have maps and sat-navs to bring them to their destination but every day that we live we walk an unmarked path. But there is no reason to fear. We can trust the Shepherd to guide us.
We can also depend on him for protection. This of course does not imply that we will be exempt from problems and pain. That would be a rather dishonest kind of religion, if trusting God meant a trouble free pass through life. The Shepherd’s protection of his sheep does not mean that he keeps us from trouble, but that he sustains us in trouble and strengthens us through trouble. We can depend on the Good Shepherd who cares about us and is able to care for us. Fr John