And here’s your starter for ten today! What has reindeer husbandry in the Sami people of the Northern Periphery of the globe got to do with our text from John’s Gospel? Don’t all rush with the answer!
What is the text about? Well it’s about the life of faith and it’s about Jesus and his calling. It draws a contrast between the good shepherd, the faithful shepherd and the hired man who’s only in it for the money or the status or whatever. He (or she) is only in it for their own reasons, whatever those reasons might be.
First of all let’s just recognise that there is nothing wrong with doing a job for pay or for self-satisfaction. This story is applying a literary tool to say something profound about Jesus and his mission and about our place in that continuing mission.
Okay, so back to the reindeer farmers of Scandinavia. For centuries the Sami people have been reindeer herders, nomads who travelled with the herd. Everything they had depended on those reindeer. Their clothes, their tents, their food, their stories, everything. Their children grew up knowing the importance of caring for their reindeer and being a part of the community life that revolved around them. But along came modernity and a money-based economy and ultimately that lovely thing called governmental regulation! Soon the Sami way of life was in danger. They were facing a predator that they could not fight off! And so individuals were offered licenses in order to be a reindeer herder. They were given subsidies to help them if they lost any reindeer to predators. They were offered loans to buy machinery and lorries to transport their reindeer between winter and summer pastures and to slaughter-houses. Life became much easier for some of the Sami people, they had money in the bank, easier jobs, better housing and sanitation and health care but of course it broke up the community, changing forever the way that the people relied on each other. But something else changed, more and more reindeer were being lost each year to predators. No one could understand why that was. Predator numbers were increasing like mad! Why? Well because the food supply was getting easier to access each year. And what is it that eats reindeer? Well a number of things but one of the most feared of predators was the wolf, just as it was in Jesus story about the sheep and the shepherd. Wolves travel in packs, as you probably know, and in past times the Sami people never left the herd unattended. Some of the community were always on the watch and when a pack of hunting wolves were sighted, the whole community came out to protect the herd. Men, women and children even in the bitterest of weather physically surrounded the herd of reindeer to protect them. The men carried weapons and fought off the wolves if they dared to come too close. When the threat was over, then and only then, the community would return to their tents to sleep. They were literally all prepared to lay down their lives for their animals.
It won’t surprise you to know that one reindeer herder cannot do that sort of thing on his or her own. Predators were going to take reindeer in increasing numbers and no amount of technology would prevent that. The hired man who takes his subsidy for each dead reindeer does not lay down his life for his animals in the way that the Sami community was prepared to do. They loved their reindeer because their reindeer gave them life and they were prepared to die to protect them.
In Jesus day the wolf was one of the major predators that sheep needed to be protected from. The life of the shepherding families was very like that of the Sami. Someone was with the sheep day and night. The shepherd would travel with them as they searched for food. It was a rough life and a hard life and one that probably began as a child, following in a father’s footsteps. The shepherding community and their families found that their lives revolved around their animals and they recognised the importance of keeping them safe from harm. They loved them and would lay down their lives for them without a second thought. But the hired man who does not have that kind of relationship with the animals, the man who is only doing his job for the money he will be paid, will not worry about running away when danger threatens.
Jesus Christ is the good shepherd. The one who lays down his life for the sheep. The one who loves them and knows them. The one who has been with them from their earliest days and who will never leave them to the mercy of the wolves. But there’s more here than that! When people say someone is a good dentist or doctor or nurse for instance, they’re not just talking about technical ability, they’re talking about things like kindness and approachability. When I worked in chaplaincy I was asked to deliver an annual lecture to medical students. It was supposed to be about recognising the importance of the spiritual element in people’s lives but we always ended up talking about kindness and approachability because many of the students had forgotten that they were going to be dealing with people! They had been concentrating on the technical aspects of medicine (which is good and essential of course) but they had yet to encounter the complexities of working with actual people! Quite a different matter!!
So Jesus is not just good because he is powerful and strong and able to save his people, he is loving and kind and approachable and understanding. He will leave no stone unturned till he gets to root of our problems and he will help us to overcome them. But just to continue for a moment, with this medical model. The doctor, the dentist, the nurse, is no good to us unless we invite them into our lives. We need to consult them, tell them the problem, trust that they can help us and see the treatment through to the end. Just like a course of antibiotics it won’t work effectively unless we finish the course!
And so to conclude. What kind of a community are we? The Church here in this place and in the wider world? Are we like the Sami people of old? Do we work together for the benefit of the whole community? Are we in it because of our love and dependence on each other? Will we protect the life of our community from the marauding forces of modern day wolves; secularity, self-aggrandisement, power, money, influence? Or are we like the modern day reindeer farmer, working alone, perhaps doing the best he can but accepting that there will be losses, or the hired shepherd in it for what he can get and scarpering when the going gets tough, leaving the sheep to fend for themselves. In this parable we are the sheep, Christ is the good shepherd, yes! BUT we are also the shepherds, asked to care for the people of God. And who are the people of God, how large and how wide is the flock? Well the last few verses of this passage tell us the answer to that. ‘Wide, wide as the ocean, high as the heavens above, deep deep as the deepest sea is my saviour’s love’. I have other sheep that are not of this fold. These too I must bring in, and they will hear my voice; and they will become one flock, and there will be one shepherd.
It is not MY task, or YOUR task to help Jesus bring them in. It is OUR task as a community of Christian people. And what are the skills we need? Just like the good reindeer farmer or shepherd or doctor or nurse… knowledge and faith, love and kindness, approachability and the humility to admit we do not have all the answers all of the time.