Spring lambs graze and nurse with their mothers on the farm of the columnist's father a little beyond the city of Madera. (Photo by John Rieping)
By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Published 20 April 2013 in The Madera Tribune
On several mornings of this ongoing Easter season I've had the joy of watching 16 little lambs, all born on various days since Good Friday. Fragile, hungry, occasionally bouncy, precocious, close to family yet daring, and more, they seem apt symbols of life.
Though my fleece is not white as snow, I can readily identify with them. But unlike me, they are new and fresh in this world, like innocents.
My father is their shepherd, I suppose, although "farmer" is a more accurate title. He checks on them several times a day, and cares for their wellbeing and that of the flock. He saved the lives of several lambs that needed help during or after birth. One less well-timed arrival suffocated before he could tend to it.
On Sunday I heard someone preach that the depiction of God in Jewish scriptures seemed angry and punishing, but Jesus came and straightened people out, letting them know his Father in heaven was, instead, loving and compassionate. Recent and past conversations with others on Facebook have hinted of the same view.
Yet in solitude I read in Jewish scripture: "Behold the Lord God shall come with strength, and his arm shall rule: behold his reward is with him and his work is before him. He shall feed his flock like a shepherd; he shall gather together the lambs with his arm, and hold them close to his heart, and he himself shall carry them that are with young." (Isaiah 40:10-11; cf. Tehillim/Psalm 95:7; 100:3)
I wonder if perhaps we wrongly see power as contrary to gentleness, and justice as an enemy of mercy? In my own earthly father's work and judgments regarding his flock, I see no such contradiction.
I remember in years past when packs of household dogs -- allowed to roam freely by irresponsible owners -- attacked my father's flock. This happened more than once, and my dad grieved. He would keep an eye out after such bloody incidents and try to fend them off with rifle shot.
One time it was one of my dad's mules that protected the sheep. It used its powerful legs to stop the nearest dog, and whenever it tried to move afterwards the mule would stomp it again for good measure. The pack fled.
"I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives his life for his sheep. But the hireling… whose own the sheep are not, sees the wolf coming… and flees; and the wolf catches and scatters the sheep. The hireling flies, because he… cares not for the sheep. (Cf. John 10:11-13)
When I walk along the fence of my father's pasture, the sheep often run away from me. Not so much with my dad. Nor does his talking disturb them, for they know his loud voice. If expecting to be fed, they even bleat hungrily or come running at the sound of him speaking.
"When he has let out his own sheep, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. But a stranger they follow not, but fly from him, because they know not the voice of strangers… I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep, and mine know me… My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me." (Cf. John 10:4-5, 14, 27)
My dad has raised goats too in the past, but didn't care for them. For fun, they would climb, eat and damage most anything in reach, such as fences that kept them safe, a metal shelter he had built for their comfort, and a mature shade tree. During escapes, they stunted or killed thriving bushes to fill their stomachs. Though small, they left desolation and brokenness where they wandered. It is no surprise Jesus said that humanity would be separated into two groups, sheep and goats, at the end of human history (Matthew 25:31-46).
For Christians, the time of Easter celebrates God's care for we his sheep, though often enough we may fit into the goat category. Unlike the unleashed pet dogs who invaded my dad's fields to feast on his sheep, God became man for an entirely different reason: "I am come that they may have life, and may have it more abundantly." (Cf. John 10:10)
Let us strive to behave more like sheep than goats that we "also may walk in newness of life" (Romans 6:4) -- like my dad's lambs. Let us imitate the "Lamb of God" (John 1:29).