There is a lot about you that is unique. Your fingerprints are unique, of course, but did you know that so are your toeprints? Your voiceprint is also unique and can be used to identify you. The patterns in the irises of your eyes are yours and yours alone. And the same thing goes for the patterns of the blood vessels in your retinas. Your gait when you walk is identifiable and can be used to pick you out from a crowd. You can be singled you out from a multitude of other people online by patterns in the way you type on your keyboard or move your mouse, a little trick that’s been used, apparently, in espionage. But here’s a new one—at least it was new to me. Did you know you have a distinctive cardiac signature? That’s right. Your heart beats in a way that is unique to you and can’t be disguised. The Pentagon has recently developed a laser-based tool called Jetson that can read your cardiac signature through your clothes from 200 meters away. So now if somebody says they know your heart you might want to ask exactly what they mean by that.
“I know my own and my own know me,” said Jesus, “just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” Jesus knows your heart, although clearly not in the same way that the Pentagon’s invasive new toy does. More importantly, though, we know the heart of Jesus. We know he loves us and he cares for us enough to lay down his life for us.
Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd. I wonder how many of us really understand what he means by that. I think what comes to mind for most of us when we hear “Good Shepherd” is a kind of greeting card image or something like the beautiful stained glass doors at the entryway of our church. We picture Jesus looking pristine in his robe with a gentle, pure white lamb draped across his shoulders. Gentle Jesus, meek and mild. I think, though, that the image it brings to mind for us is a far cry from what it called to mind for the people listening to him on that long-ago day in Jerusalem.
When he was talking to people two thousand years ago in Galilee and Judea, Jesus used metaphors that were part of their everyday life. That’s what made him such an effective teacher. Even people who had never been outside of Jerusalem’s walls knew about shepherds. They were a common sight. They had all seen shepherds bringing sheep into the city for the markets and for sacrifices in the temple.
Shepherds were also part of their faith heritage. Joseph had been a shepherd. Jacob worked as a shepherd for Laban so he could marry Rachel and Leah who had also tended sheep. Zipporah and her sisters tended flocks. Moses tended sheep before God called him to lead people. King David started out as a shepherd. The prophets spoke of the kings and religious leaders as shepherds—sometimes good, sometimes not so much. Yahweh was regarded as the ultimate shepherd and, through the prophets, spoke of the people of Israel as “my flock.”
When Jesus called himself the Good Shepherd, it brought a particular image to mind for those listening to him, but it wasn’t stained glass and greeting cards. There was nothing particularly pristine in their picture of a shepherd. They knew that shepherding was a dirty, smelly job. But they also knew that good shepherds were strong and brave and tough when they had to be to protect the sheep. David, the shepherd boy, told King Saul he was tough enough to take on Goliath because he had already killed a bear and a lion.
At night, when a shepherd would bring the sheep in from the pasture into the safety of the fold, he would recline across the opening of the sheepfold, making his own body the gate of the sheep pen, a barrier between the sheep and any predators, so that anything or anyone that tried to get at the sheep would have to do it across his body.
Often several shepherds would bring multiple flocks into a large sheepfold for the night. When it was time to lead them out again to pasture in the morning, each shepherd would simply start calling out the sheep call that was familiar to his own flock. Each flock knew their own shepherd’s distinct voice and would follow him and only him out to pasture. So again, when Jesus says, “My sheep know my voice,” he is using a metaphor that’s familiar to everyone listening.
So why is Jesus using this powerful image in that time and place? He’s in the precincts of the temple. He is already in hot water for healing on the sabbath, bringing sight to a man born blind. This is all happening during the Feast of the Dedication, Hannukah, the feast that commemorates the rededication of the temple after the victory of the uprising led by Judas Maccabeus over Antiochus Epiphanes in 164 BCE. Judas Maccabeus was a national hero, someone whom the Jews thought of, historically, as a good shepherd. The temple was the place that more than any other symbolized the people’s covenant relationship with God. So in the midst of all of this, the Pharisees and temple authorities are listening to Jesus very carefully. And what Jesus says is, to their ears, very provocative.
“I am the Good Shepherd,” says Jesus. Just what is he saying? To their minds, God is the Good Shepherd. Judas Maccabeus was a good shepherd of another sort. Was Jesus equating himself with God? Or to the hero who had freed them from their Greek overlords? They had to be wondering.
And then he said this: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” Who was he talking about? Could he be talking about gentiles? Is he talking about bringing them into the covenant? Into the temple? This was both unsettling and provocative to the Pharisees and temple authorities.
And who would those other sheep be for us today? Who are those who are “not of this sheepfold”—or not of this church, maybe?—who Jesus intends to bring into the flock?
One flock. One shepherd. None of the artificial distinctions we’re so fond of making. No us. No them. The Good Shepherd has gone outside the sheepfold to call in all the sheep who know his voice. All of them. All of us. Are we ready to be one big happy flock with sheep we don’t know? Even if some of them have different kinds of wool? One flock. One shepherd.
“I know my own and my own know me.” I wonder about that statement. Is it always that straightforward? Especially the second part—“my own know me”? I know I’ve sometimes been misled into following other voices. It’s easy to follow the voice of politics or partisanship or moralism or prestige or money or national or racial or cultural or generational identity out into a wasteland full of predators. It’s easy sometimes to think you’re following the Good Shepherd but it’s someone else mimicking his voice or borrowing his name for their own purposes. We all saw those “Jesus” signs at the Capitol Insurrection. I’m pretty sure that wasn’t really the Good Shepherd inspiring that activity.
“My own know me.” I think that’s our never-ending homework—to keep listening, to keep learning to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd, to discern the voice of Christ above all the pretenders and the noise and other voices that try to distract us.
“My own know me.” Maybe Jesus states this so positively, so affirmatively, so that we have to take it as a goal and not make a liar out of him. “My own know me.” Okay, Jesus. I will do everything I can to make that true.
But that first part—“I know my own,” –-That’s where the good news is for us. Even when we have wandered off following the wrong voice or our own stubborn inclinations, Jesus still knows us. Jesus still says to us, You belong. You are mine. I know you. I know your going out and your coming in. I know your fingerprints and your toeprints and the pattern of your irises. I know your heart. I have your cardiac signature. You are mine.
There will be one flock. One shepherd…who knows the heart of each and every one of us. And has laid down his life for us. That’s the voice we can trust.