Most of us have very little to do with sheep, apart from purchasing cuts of meat from a supermarket or similar. Those of us who do have something to do with sheep in Australia have an average size herd of just under 3000 sheep. In the time of Jesus the average number of sheep per shepherd was 100. The smaller size herds make knowing individual sheep possible.
So what could possibly induce a shepherd to be willing to risk his life to save his sheep?
To modern minds this is beyond comprehension; and verging on crazy.
And it is, until you consider the amount of time the shepherd spends with the sheep, and how frequently a shepherd has to check for wounds, health of gums, and the quality of wool. For much of the time the shepherd is alone with the sheep; and has plenty of time to study them and to note and remember their individual differences.
Some will be placid, some will be adventurous, one might have a stiffer leg, a higher pitched bleat, a floppy ear, or be a fussy grazer. It is this long term build-up of the knowledge of what makes each sheep unique, which makes the sheep matter to the shepherd. In the same way it is the long term build-up of relationship of the sheep with the shepherd that engenders trust, making the shepherd matter to the sheep.
Jesus knows us this well. He has studied everything about us, and He can also see the traces of our various lineages too. He remembers who our parents and grandparents were, and He knows the various character traits we share with them.
He knows us this well that we matter to Him, despite being merely sheep.
Yesterday the residents at the local aged care facility had Mass for the first time since Christmas. Many of them we see each week for Communion services, and those unable to attend receive individual visits. Having been reflecting upon this Gospel passage, I could see the parallels. The more we get to know each resident, the more they matter to us. It was so good to have so many of them in the same place, and to reconnect with some we haven’t seen for a while because someone else has been doing their individual visits. At the same time, the absence of those who couldn’t be there was keenly felt.
It strikes me that this is the kind of long term deep relationship that Jesus wants with us, and that He wants for us with each other. It requires us investing time with Him; and investing time with each other.
Therein lies the challenge because there is no shortcut to this process.
There is nothing to compare with one on one time for getting to know someone, or even few on few.
Perhaps that is why parish visitation used to be a core part of a parish priest's ministry.
These days it tends to be meetings and administration, but it is still possible to carve out time to go and visit the flock, 'just because'.
Admittedly these days it is not advisable to go alone without a companion as a witness and a protection, but it could still be done with a bit of planning and rotations of visiting companions.
I note with some sadness that once upon a time bishops used to come and visit the children preparing for Confirmation. It was an effective way of knowing that the children had been prepared. But these days the bishops seem to delegate that to the priests, and the priests in turn delegate that to the sacramental co-ordinator, and he or she depends on the group leaders - and even then it is a very brave group leader who will say a child is not prepared because they missed lessons, didn't pay attention, or doesn't seem at all interested.
Visiting parishioners and spending time with them is crucial if we are to imitate the Good Shepherd.