Revd. Mduduzi Simphiwe Mathe.
Growing up in Eshowe, the end of the school term was my favourite time, as township boy this for me meant some time away in Nkanini at my grandmother’s place. My grandmother did not like us sitting at home idling when we were there. The boys either had to go help in the garden or take the goats and cows out to graze, out of laziness and wanting to be on an adventure I would always opt for going with the herdsmen or shepherds. The cows and goats had names that my grandmother or my uncles had given to them, we were taught how to identify them and call them by name. Every morning our day would start with opening the kraal gate and leading the animals out to graze. The animals would rely on us to lead them to a patch that was suitable for grazing; sometimes this meant us walking for hours on end just to find a place that was suitable for grazing. We would then take the animals to the river or spring to drink, and then back to the grazing patch.
I remember one day when we had taken them out to graze we got to an area that we thought was suitable for grazing, as we were about to sit down in the shade we saw a snake within close proximity of where we were. No one said anything to anyone we just ran for our dear lives leaving the animals to fend for themselves. When we thought it was safe to return only then did we go back for the animals. On this particular day we came back without one cow and my grandmother noticed immediately when we were putting them in the kraal, she sent us out to look for it. She promised us a hiding if we did not find it and return home with it; luckily we for us we eventually came back with it.
Today when reading the gospel of John chapter 10: 1-12, this took me back to that childhood experience. Jesus when speaking to the people around him tells them that anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. He goes on to explain that the gatekeeper knows his sheep and he calls them by name; the sheep he says will not follow a stranger when they call.
Jesus then tells them that he is the gate and that anyone who has come before him i.e. the Pharisees and other teachers were thieves and bandits. Jesus then goes on to cement the fact that salvation only comes through the recognition of him as being the Messiah and the one who is sent by God.
Jesus goes on to say that his mission on earth is a life giving one that he is here to restore life unto people, not only a life of segregation intolerance and hatred but a life that he says is an abundant life. Jesus came into a society that had religious practices that did not give life to people but held them in bondage; still there was an inequality and an elitism that existed in the religious society of his time. So he comes as a reformer to bring about change. He has not come with arterial motives or because of popularity and to swindle more money for the poor but he has come to bring about an enriching ministry.
I know that the text did not extend to verse 12 but I also felt that it gives us a full picture of this discourse. Jesus then extends to the analogy of him not only being the gate that the sheep come in through but he then goes on to say that he is the good shepherd, he tells us what a bad shepherd does; in times of danger and panic the shepherd runs and leaves the sheep to fend for themselves. However he says that he is not like those shepherds, this shepherd is even prepared to lay down his own life for those that he tends to.
Mfundisi what does this mean and why did you tell us the story in the beginning? Well this story shows us that well in fact Jesus was not telling a lie when he spoke about the relationship of an ordinary shepherd and the animal that they tend to. This relationship does not come close to the intimate relationship that he promises us. In times of terror and panic Jesus does not flee but stays with those who he tends to and weathers the storm with them.
The church does this deliberately every time after the occurrences of Good Friday that we are reminded of the true mission of Jesus that led to his demise. Even when his life was in danger and threatened he stayed and suffered the consequences of his ministry of truth on the cross. Even though we cannot partake in liturgical worship or take part in the mass together but the ever present God the good shepherd is here with us in times of danger and harm.
Secondly what I learned from the relationship my grandmother had with her livestock is that not only did she know them by name, it did not matter that she had many animals in her home but she recognised the presence and absence of each and every animal. So too Jesus who is the good shepherd knows us by name, Jesus knows when we are not accounted for and loves and tends for us all when we ail and in a season of suffering. Jesus suffers there with us, the Emmanuel, God with us. Jesus knows our fears and anxiety, and is here with us and amongst us in this time of danger, illness and panic. Jesus also showed in his ministry that the love he has for his flock is equal, the unconditional love of a good shepherd, who is here with us and among us even during this time. Amen