Jesus called himself a lot of things, the light of the world, the bread of life, the Son of Man, and sometimes just – I am.
One of the more comforting titles that he uses for himself is the Good Shepherd – comforting because it brings visions of cute little animals grazing calmly on a peaceful hillside, or that wonderful image of Jesus carrying the lamb that he rescued on his shoulders.
I don’t know much about sheep, but I do know something about cows. I grew up in a farming area, and most of my school friends lived on farms. I was one of the only kids in my third grade class who didn’t know how to drive a tractor.
I went over to a friend’s house late one afternoon when his dad was milking. They milked about 120 head, and they had what they called a parlor where the cows would come in to be milked. My friend’s dad would stand below the level of the cows, and he would use a rope to open a door to let a few cows in. They would line up on one side of the parlor or the other. They would go and stand by feeders that were full of grain and eat, while my friend’s dad would clean the udders, attach the milking machine, and then send them on their way when they were finished.
When I try to compare my friend’s dad and the dairy cows to Jesus and the sheep, some things fit and others don’t. My friend’s dad lived much of his life for those cows. He got up very early every day to do the milking, didn’t sleep much during calving season, planted corn and alfalfa, put up silage and baled hay.
Jesus, on the other hand, lived his entire life for us. We are the reason he was born – the reason he lived – and the reason he died. I don’t think my friend’s dad would have seriously endangered his life for one of his cows – but Jesus willingly gave up his life for us. He died for each one of us.
When Jesus called himself the Good Shepherd, he was trying to use a metaphor that people could understand, but whether he was talking about a sheep herder or a dairy farmer, I think it’s clear that what Jesus did for us on Good Friday went far beyond what we would expect of anyone looking after farm animals. But while the metaphor falls way short, it still probably helped the people of his day, and it helps us.
Now Jesus, the Good Shepherd, spoke about us as his sheep. Well, what about the sheep – or the cows? I remember my friend – and his dad – complaining that cows were really dumb animals.
I looked on the internet to find out if sheep were smarter or dumber than cows. Most of the things I read agreed with my friend and his dad. They said that cows really were dumb animals. But almost everyone agreed that sheep were even dumber.
Now when I thought about that, I got a little upset. Does Jesus want us to just follow him like a dumb animal? Well that didn’t make sense to me. I’m a lot smarter than a sheep or a cow – I hope. And I want to be independent. I want to make my own decisions. I don’t want to just follow someone else like a dumb animal.
One of the things I remember about my friend’s dairy cows was that, in the beginning, they wouldn’t just come in, go to the right place in the milking parlor, and stand quietly while my friend’s dad cleaned them up and attached the milking machine. They had to learn to trust him and trust the process. In the Gospel today, Jesus said: “I know my own (my sheep) and mine know me.” My friend’s dad knew each one of his 120 cows – their looks, their habits, their quirks. Jesus knows each one of us much better than that, but do we know him and do we trust him? Isn’t that what our spiritual life – our spiritual journey is about – getting to know Jesus – our Good Shepherd – better – so that we can trust him. Isn’t that why we come to church each weekend? Isn’t that why we pray – so that we can know Jesus better and trust him more?
But when we learn to trust him, what happens to our independence? Isn’t it importance that we NOT be like sheep or dairy cows? Isn’t it important that we maintain our independence? Well, actually, no. It’s more important that we are free – not independent, but free.
Think about the sheep who wanders away from the flock – who becomes independent. When evening comes and the wolves come out to hunt, that sheep will still be independent, but will it be free? It’ll spend the night looking for safe places to hide. It’ll jump with fright every time it hears a strange noise. This is independence, but it is not freedom.
I used to think about the difference between independence and freedom when I used to drive a bit too fast. When I ignored the speed limits, I was exercising my independence – I was making my own decisions about how fast I could drive. But I would spend the whole time looking for police cars in the rearview mirror, around every corner, and over each hill. The knot in my stomach that got tighter as my speed increased reminded me that when I exercised my independence, I severely limited my freedom to relax and enjoy the drive.
Freedom involves trust and obedience inside a relationship of love. Let me say it again: freedom involves trust and obedience inside a relationship of love. The trust that the sheep had for the shepherd – the trust that the dairy cows had for my friend’s dad – gave them freedom. When the sheep obeyed the shepherd and gathered with the flock they were safe – they were free. When the cows came in to be milked they were fed and their load was lightened – literally.
When we choose to gossip about a neighbor or a co-worker, we’re exercising our independence to speak as we wish, but we’re limiting our freedom to develop a caring relationship with that person. If we choose to lie to someone – a friend, a parent, a spouse, a teacher – we’re acknowledging our independence from that person, but our relationship with that person is no longer free – it’s conditional – based on that lie. If we choose to live in a sexual relationship with another person outside of marriage, we’re exercising our independence, but we’re compromising our relationship with God and the Church. We’re putting ourselves outside the flock, like the lonely sheep that spent the night without the protection of the shepherd – in fear of the wolves.
It’s only in following Christ that we’re truly free. And ironically, it is only when we surrender our independence from Jesus that we can be truly free in him. I know that’s hard to swallow. It’s hard for me too. But realize that independence from Jesus is sin – it’s that simple. And a life with Jesus – a life without sin – is a life of freedom.
I’m not suggesting that you just accept everything related to your faith without thinking about it. God gave us our minds as a wonderful gift. But if we start from a foundation of trust in our Good Shepherd – the one who laid down his life for us – then our freedom will win out over our independence every time.
I hope that you can develop that kind of trust in Jesus. I hope that you can realize that a life in Christ is a life of unimaginable freedom. I hope you can look at yourself in the mirror tomorrow morning and say: “Holy cow!”