In first century Palestine, shepherds had a pretty bad press, especially if they were hired hands, being blamed for thefts and fights. They were often despised and ostracised by local communities.
Shepherds spent their lives in the wilderness scratching for food for their sheep and facing danger from wild animals.
Those that were poorly paid hired hands tended to lead their flocks onto other people’s land and had a reputation for pilfering and were sometimes accused of stealing from the flock.
The pious were warned not to buy wool, milk or kids from the shepherds, on the assumption that it was stolen property.
Polite society considered that there was no more disreputable occupation than that of a shepherd.
So, when we call Jesus the “Good Shepherd” we may be saying something more revolutionary that we realise.
In today’s Gospel reading Jesus refers to Himself as something that sounds even lowlier than a shepherd; the door of the sheepfold.
But in the ancient Middle East the door of the sheepfold was provided by the shepherd himself, who would lie across the entrance at night in order to keep the sheep in and the wild animals out.
This entrance was the only legitimate way into the sheepfold, since any other entry involved climbing over the wall, a route taken by thieves.
So, having referred to Himself as a caring shepherd, the one whom the sheep rightly trust to keep them safe, Jesus throws a final insult towards the religious leaders of the day, implying that they are nothing more than selfish hired hands; that all who came before Him were thieves and bandits caring nothing for the sheep.
Therefore, He says, the sheep failed to listen to those religious leaders.
But Jesus affirms that the sheep instantly recognise Him, hear His voice and identify Him as their shepherd.
By acting as the gatekeeper, Jesus encourages His sheep into the sheepfold when necessary, but also leads them to roam freely in the pasture.
If the Church is the sheepfold, we need to remember that its purpose is a shelter to which we return to rest and recover.
Our shepherd, Jesus, cares for us and keeps us safe, but most of the time He encourages us to go out into the world beyond, where we are to roam freely.
So, when we can at last return to our church buildings and worship together, we need to remember that it is our place to rest and relax, knowing that we are kept safe by Jesus; but then we need to go back out into the world.
Fortunately, we have a Good Shepherd.
Jesus will guide us out to the places where we need to be and will gather us back into the fold, keeping us safe.
If we hear His voice and go out and come back through Him, we will find our nourishment in the most unexpected places.
And when that happens, then all of us begin to experience life as God intended.