Have you ever been out on a walk through your neighbourhood and heard the plaintive miaowing of a kitten? What would you do? My thoughts in such a situation would be to look all around for where the cry was coming from. I’ll tell you a story of one experience I heard about. Well the first thing is that you probably won’t find the source of the cries until you looked up—way up—into the pine tree in your neighbour’s yard. But, there you see a new kitten, crying for all it was worth. As kittens frequently do, it had gone exploring and was now afraid or unsure of how to come down. You stand under the tree, calling “Here, kitty, kitty,” trying your best to persuade the kitten to come back down.
I wonder if you would go home and borrow some treats from your own cats – if you have them - to lure the kitten down the tree. However, nothing works! If it was me I might give up at this point. So, your neighbour comes home and hopefully as she comes over to say hello, she will hear the kitten’s cries. Hopefully, quickly, she would begin calling the cat by name. It would be quieted once it heard her voice, and would even take a few steps down the branch, but then like cats do, maybe it would lay down and refuse to come any further.
To continue, after several attempts, the neighbour, not an especially young woman, pulls a garden bench over to the tree and begins climbing. One could suggest that we call someone else to help, but this is refused by the neighbour who wanted to get her kitten down right away because it might fall. By this stage I think I would be standing underneath holding my breath as the neighbour began to climb up, branch by branch. I wouldn’t feel confident to climb. Finally, she would get to be level with the kitten. I imagine she would tuck it lovingly into her jacket and slowly back down the tree, saying soothing words all the while.
This type of story helps me think about this week’s reading from John 10. “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.” That cat was not at all tempted by pleas to come down to safety; it had no idea who this person that found it was. The neighbour used the same words and tone of voice in her calls to the kitten, but the results were different. Why? She knew the cat by name, and it knew her voice. Just knowing that she was close seemed to calm the kitten, even though it still could not bring itself to climb down to safety.
I would have been very reluctant to risk a broken limb by climbing the tree, but the neighbour did not think twice. She was much more concerned about the risk to her kitten than the risk to herself. On that day, and I am sure many others, she was a good “cat-herd.” The image of the good shepherd is one that is used for God many times throughout Scripture. It evokes feelings of tender care in us even today, despite our unfamiliarity with sheep and shepherds.
Those who heard Jesus speak these words would have had a far deeper understanding of sheep and those who cared for them. Owners often kept sheep for years and years as providers of wool rather than as meat. Shepherds stayed with their flock by day and by night, protecting them from both human and animal predators, as well as from their own silly tendencies to wander away. Because the shepherd spent almost all his time with his sheep, he learned their individual qualities. He knew who was prone to wander, who hogged the grassiest parts of the pasture, and who was most often cut out of the flock.
The sheep also knew him. If another person called out to them, they would not answer. If the shepherd called, however, the flock would move toward him. As he walked ahead, calling their names, they would follow. Some of the sheep may have been more endearing than others; certainly, some followed more closely. But good shepherds showed the same care for the more recalcitrant members of their flock as for all the others. How blessed we are that we, too, have a good shepherd in Jesus Christ! He promises to care for us, and he showed the extent of that love on the cross, where he gave his life willingly for us. Like sheep, there is nothing that we do to earn such great love; it is given to us freely, often in spite of ourselves.