Psalm 23John 10:1-10
Our vacation was tremendous - a week in Orlando visiting my sister and brother-in-law, sleeping as late as toddlers allow, watching movies, eating good food. But the highlight of it all was Gatorland. If you've never been, I highly recommend it - a family-owned zoo dedicated to gators, crocs, and all kinds of dangerous, scary critters.
The best part of it all was the gator wrestling. A man gets into a sand pit with a moat containing eight or nine gators. He drags one out by the tail, leaps on his back, shuts the gator's eyes, and grabs his jaw, pulling back. From there, it was pure showmanship: holding the mouth shut with one hand, one finger, his chin; opening the gator's mouth and doing the same thing; flipping the gator onto its back so that it falls asleep. It was fun, of course. But you could sense in the handler that there was, beyond the intimate knowledge of the animal and its habits, a deep appreciation and respect, and hopefully a healthy fear, for the creature. The thought passed through my mind, someone bizzare, I'll admit, that the handler was a shepherd of gators.
It's a bit of a stretch to draw a parallel between the two texts and that experience in Southeast Orlando. Particularly if you put the sheep beside the gator, well, you won't have a sheep for very long for one thing. But for another thing, there's not much to compare the two. But there is, I think, a thread that holds that handler to the shepherd. There is a knowledge of the creature entrusted to their care. There is an awareness of the power dynamic as well as the dependence within the relationship. And there is an awe for what is at work.
The documentary Grizzly Man is the compelling story of Timothy Treadwell, an environmental activist who would spend the summer months in the Alaskan wilderness living among grizzly bears. The film follows his descent into madness, as he moves from someone with compassion for the animals to assuming they are on the same footing - anthropomorphizing the fierce bears in the process - until he ultimately crosses the line too far and is killed by one of the bears. Werner Herzog, the director, notes the admirable tendencies of Treadwell to protect these animals and their habitat, but also that he forgot the first rule of being in relationship with nature: fear and awe must be part of the equation.
Given that the gator handler had all his fingers, it seems he understood that part of the story. And while the roles of power are somewhat reversed with the shepherd, there must remain this sense of awe and mystery for the creature.
There is also, though not to the level of human interaction, a personal relationship at work, too. The sheep know the sound of their shepherd's voice. I have seen this among Middle Eastern shepherds, calling to their herd to follow with a few quick "ya"s and clicks. As Jesus says in the John passage, "the sheep follow because they know the sound of his voice." There is a connection between the two.
The writer of the 23rd Psalm certainly knew that. There are three parts to the psalm. At the first, the shepherd is God, the provider and sustainer of life: leading into green fields and beside the waters. Then the shepherd becomes protector, with rod and staff, even in the midst of darkness and death. The final part, while still one of provision, is of a household where enemies gather at table and cups overflow. God the shepherd is the provider and protector.
It's an image that fits the context. Sheep and shepherds were part of every day life. And so, as Jesus continues his teaching and ministry, he picks up on this image. Jesus is the shepherd, at first, the one whose voice the sheep recognize. He's not the pretender; he's the real deal.
But then Jesus shifts gears. "I am the gate," he says. Shepherd we might be able to get our head around; Jesus the Christ is represented by the shepherd, this protector and provider of Psalm 23. But the gate? An inanimate object? That's a bit trickier. Perhaps Jesus is warning us against reading the text too closely for some kind of hidden meaning; but then again, maybe there's more to this than first meets the eye:
At night, the sheep would be corralled. When out on the hillside, it would be into the mouth of a cave in the side of the rock. And the shepherd, once he has accounted for all of the sheep, lies down at the foot of the cave. He is both gate and shepherd. He is provider and protector. And should any come to harm the sheep, they must first harm the shepherd. There is a cross for those who would dare to be the gate.
OK. Let's play this metaphor out a bit. If God is the shepherd, if Jesus is the gate, then what does that make us? Sheep. We are sheep. Would you be flattered if someone called you a sheep to your face? I'd rather be the gator, personally. We see sheep as these docile, obedient creatures, responding to clicks and "ya"s, falling in line, spending the night in a pen or a cave. And that image may not appeal to many of us.
But I'm willing to bet that the piece that is most alienating for us is the notion of dependence. The sheep is utterly dependent on the shepherd. The shepherd is the one who finds the right pastures and ample water. The shepherd is the one who walks with them through valleys of darkness and death. And the shepherd is the one who lies down at the front of the cave to protect them through the night. Dependence is a notion that feels contrary to our most human desires. That seems particularly true to me in our culture. We are a do-it-yourself people, folks who pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and get the job done, right? We are independent, self-reliant. We don't need anybody else, we just need to keep that stiff upper lip, gut it through, pull our own weight, and everything will be alright.
And here are these two texts, alongside so many others in Scripture, which say otherwise. We are utterly dependent sheep. We need God. We need God's protection and provision. We need God's healing and strength. We need God's wisdom.
So here's the question: do we know the sound of our shepherd's voice?
Perhaps we would do well to return to the familiar words, that friendly voice, of the 23rd Psalm. And in that Psalm, we can hear the shepherd calling to us:
"Trust my paths. They will give you enough strength for the journey. I will always give you enough to sustain you. Do not fear the darkness. Do not fear death. I am with you. I protect you. I walk beside you. I lay at the mouth of the cave for you. Depend on me. You cannot and should not do it alone. You need others. You need community. You need me. You are not the shepherd. You are not the gate. You are not the gator. You are the sheep; but you are my sheep!"