The popular metaphor of the shepherd, the gate, and the sheep: what does it speak to the believer, to the reader?
It’s a simple but powerful edict: listen, understand, and follow. It has three parts that work together as one. I must listen, to understand and I must understand, to follow, or at the least, to avoid following blindly. Jesus never asks us to follow blindly. Perhaps the way may appear dark and even fearsome, but God promises to go ahead of us, to lead, and therefore, we are asked to trust.
“The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. [vs 3 & 4]
Note that we come out of the pen first and gather together and wait for the shepherd to finish the work of calling out his own, those that recognize the voice. Do I recognize the voice of Christ? It is a nagging question. And yet, I am still here. I am still a follower. I still trust God’s Presence. But I also know that I can hamper my own progress when I don’t “practice the presence” of God, when I don’t still my mind in meditation, when I don’t listen. It’s not that I will fall down or go over a cliff, but the way could be smoother if I would spend more time in prayer and stillness.
What do I know about the Shepherd or the sheep? The shepherd is different from the sheep. He knows the ways of sheep; he knows what sheep eat and need to survive; he knows how to protect them. He is an expert on sheep. But sheep still see the Shepherd as other. In fact, most sheep probably see other sheep as other. Sheep are not the sharpest knife in the drawer, as they say. More facts about sheep: they have good hearing and are sensitive to noises, they have good peripheral vision, they have poor depth perception, they prefer light over dark places, they have an excellent sense of smell, they are “flock” animals and very gregarious, they do not do well separated from the flock, and sheep, by their nature, tend to follow a leader (whether a strong sheep or a shepherd).
Sheep need other sheep. Sheep need a Shepherd. I think I sometimes think I can go against this basic; I imagine I can go it alone or I imagine I don’t need that Shepherd. Experience has shown otherwise. But I can still stumble along.
Sheep do have long-term facial recognition. So, that means, they can know their Shepherd. But it takes time. And effort.
Intellectually, I know this metaphor can break down here and there. After all, the Christ Presence is ultimate patience. God in Christ is unrelenting in love. The question is whether I can be taught? What is the best way to learn from this face, this voice, this Shepherd?
Repetition of contact. Learn the commands, the basics. Listen. And be gregarious with other sheep. Sometimes, we may need to follow the flock who hear better than we do.