The Gospel reading for today (John 10: 11-18) features the image of Christ as the Good Shepherd. It was one that we are all familiar with. “I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. . . I know my own and my own know me.” We can understand the meaning of this image. Jesus loves us. He died for us. This is an incredible sacrifice and gift. Yet, most of us don’t know what it means to be a shepherd. The people for whom this Gospel was written were very familiar with that profession. In modern day America, most of us don’t have a whole lot of contact with sheep.
Hearing this Gospel reminded me of Heaven Has Blue Carpet: A Sheep Story by a Suburban Housewife by Sharon Niedzinski. Niedzinski, a Christian, was a suburban housewife when she and her husband decided to pack up their six children and move to the country. When she saw the rolling hills that she now owned, she thought that a “flock of cotton-white sheep grazing . . . seemed like the perfect finishing touch.” She spent the next sixteen years learning from these sheep and coming to a whole new understanding of what it means to be a good shepherd as well as what it means to be a sheep. She shares her wisdom and insight in “Heaven has Blue Carpet.” For example, sheep are horrible gluttons. Left to their own natural urges, they can actually die from overindulgence. Niedzinski reflects, “Left alone, living without moral guidance or restrictions, living according to our inherent urges, we also will destroy ourselves and our environment. God the Father, our Creator, knew this. That is why he sent his Son to earth, to show us how to live. His Son would be our Shepherd, and if we would follow him, he would lead us into an abundant life.”
Also, sheep’s tails need to be cut off a few days after birth or else they will be “plagued with pests and infections.” Niedzinski found this process so painful – she hated to hurt the lambs. “We all have experienced or will experience the Shepherd’s knife. We may even experience a piercing, passing-out level of loss. But remember, we’re in his arms, and he’s holding us tight against his heart. Like the sheep, we may never understand why our Shepherd allows our knifelike disappointments and tragedies. We must remember that he is God and we are not. . . His picture is bigger than our picture.”
As a shepherd, Niedzinski had to take care of all of her sheep, even the ones who paid her no attention. The Good Shepherd is like that as well. “Before I even knew the Good Shepherd and began following him, he was there in my life . . . leading, guiding, and protecting me. He was always there. Like the complacent, need-nothing sheep. I just never looked up.”
Lastly, sheep are born to die. “Their ultimate purpose was not to take place in Sheep World but in their master’s world, in our home. Only those lambs who reached my standard ended up on my table. . . We were not born just to live; we were also born to die to self (the cross) and to be transformed into the likeness of Jesus Christ (our destiny!).” The image of the Good Shepherd is pregnant with meaning. I am very thankful to Sharon Niedzinski for helping to explain more of it to all of us.