Behold a hero of the west: the cowboy.

He rears his horse to a stop on the rim of the canyon. He shifts his weight in his saddle, weary from the cattle trail. One finger pushes his hat up on his head. One jerk of the kerchief reveals a sun-leathered face.

A thousand head of cattle pass behind him. A thousand miles of trail lie before him. A thousand women would love to hold him. But none do. None will. He lives to drive cattle, and he drives cattle to live. He is honest in poker and quick with a gun. Hard riding. Slow talking. His best friend is his horse, and his strength is his grit.

He needs no one. He is a cowboy. The American hero.

Behold a hero in the Bible: the shepherd.

On the surface he appears similar to the cowboy. He, too, is rugged. He sleeps where the jackals howl and works where the wolves prowl. Never off duty. Always alert. Like the cowboy, he makes his roof the stars and the pasture his home.

But that is where the similarities end.

The shepherd loves his sheep. It’s not that the cowboy doesn’t appreciate the cow; it’s just that he doesn’t know the animal. He doesn’t even want to. Have you ever seen a picture of a cowboy caressing a cow? Have you ever seen a shepherd caring for a sheep? Why the difference?

Simple. The cowboy leads the cow to slaughter. The shepherd leads the sheep to be shorn. The cowboy wants the meat of the cow. The shepherd wants the wool of the sheep. And so they treat the animals differently.

The cowboy drives the cattle. The shepherd leads the sheep.

A herd has a dozen cowboys. A flock has one shepherd.

The cowboy wrestles, brands, herds, and ropes. The shepherd leads, guides, feeds, and anoints.

The cowboy knows the name of the trail hands. The shepherd knows the name of the sheep.

The cowboy whoops and hollers at the cows. The shepherd calls each sheep by name.

Aren’t we glad Christ didn’t call himself the Good Cowboy? But some do perceive God that way. A hard-faced, square-jawed ranch-hand from heaven who drives his church against its will to places it doesn’t want to go.

But that’s a wrong image. Jesus called himself the Good Shepherd. The Shepherd who knows his sheep by name and lays down his life for them. The Shepherd who protects, provides, and possesses his sheep. The Bible is replete with this picture of God.

“The Lord is my shepherd” (Ps. 23:1).

“We are your people, the sheep of your flock” (Ps. 79:13).

“Shepherd of Israel, listen to us. You lead the people of Joseph like a flock”
(Ps. 80:1).

“He is our God and we are the people he takes care of and the sheep that he tends” (Ps. 95:7).

“He made us, and we belong to him; we are his people, the sheep he tends”
(Ps. 100:3).

The imagery is carried over to the New Testament.

“He is the shepherd who will risk his life to save the one straying sheep”
(Luke 15:4).

“He has pity on people because they are like sheep without a shepherd”
(Matt. 9:36).

“His disciples are his flock” (Luke 12:32).

“When the shepherd is attacked, the sheep are scattered” (Matt 26:31).

“He is the shepherd of the souls of men” (I Peter 2:25).

“He is the great shepherd of the sheep” (Heb. 12:30).

Eighty percent of Jesus’ listeners made their living off the land. Many were shepherds. They lived on the mesa with the sheep. No flock ever grazed without a shepherd, and no shepherd was ever off duty. When sheep wandered, the shepherd found them. When they fell, he carried them. When they were hurt, he healed them.

Sheep aren’t smart. They tend to wander into running creeks for water, then their wool grows heavy and they drown. They need a shepherd to lead them to “calm water” (Ps. 23:3). They have no natural defense — no claws, no horns, no fangs. They are helpless. Sheep need a shepherd with a “rod and . . . walking stick” (Ps. 23:4) to protect them. They have no sense of direction. They need someone to lead them “on paths that are right” (Ps. 23:3).

So do we. We, too, tend to be swept away by waters we should have avoided. We have no defense against the evil lion who prowls about seeking who he might devour. We, too, get lost. “We all have wandered away like sheep; each of us has gone his own way” (Isa. 53:6).

We need a shepherd. We don’t need a cowboy to herd us; we need a shepherd to care for us and to guide us.

And we have one. One who know us by name.

I don’t need to tell you why this is so important, do I? You know. Like me, you’ve probably been in a situation where someone forgot your name. Perhaps a situation where no one knew who you were-or even cared.

Not long ago my assistant, Karen Hill, underwent surgery. When she awoke in the recovery room, she could hear a fellow patient groaning. She heard a well-meaning nurse comforting him. “Settle down, Tom,” she said. “Settle down.” But still he moaned. The nurse returned. “It’s all right, Tom. Just go with the pain.” He was quiet for a few moments but then began groaning again. “It’s okay, Tom. You’ll be fine.” Finally the patient spoke. With a low, painful voice he said, “My name’s not Tom.”

There was a moment of silence as the nurse picked up his chart. Then she said, “It’s all right, Harry; it’s all right.”

It’s never easy to be in a place where no one knows your name, but few of us know this as much as John Doe No. 24. His story, as recorded by the Associated Press, reads like this:

Unknown Since ’45,
John Doe Takes His
Secret to the Grave
Jacksonville, Ill.

The mystery of John Doe No. 24 outlived him. There were few clues when he was found, wandering the streets of Jacksonville in 1945, a deaf, blind teenager.

Since he was unable to speak had his relatives could not be found, he was placed in an institution. He became John Doe No. 24 because he was the twenty-fourth unidentified man in the state’s mental health system. Officials believe he was sixty-four when he dies of a stroke at the Sharon Oaks nursing home in Peoria.

John Doe’s caretakers believe diabetes made him lose his sight, and records indicate he was severely retarded. But workers remember a proud man, more intelligent than the standard tests showed. They remember the tantalizing hints to his identity—the way he would scrawl “Lewis” and his pantomimed wild accounts of foot-stomping jazz bars and circus parades. “It was so obvious from what he pantomimed that he had quite a life at one time,” said Kim Cornwell, a caseworker. “Like my grandfather, he could probably tell funny stories. We just couldn’t reach out enough to get them.”

He had a straw hat he loved to wear and he took a backpack with his collection of rings, glasses and silverware with him everywhere. At Christmas parties he danced to vibrations from the music. Last Christmas the staff bought him a harmonica . . .

At a brief graveside service last Wednesday in Jacksonville, a woman asked if anyone had any words to say. No one did.

Somewhere in the darkness of John Doe No.24 there was a story. There was a name. There were memories of a mother who held him, a father who carried him. Behind those sightless eyes were eyes that could see the past, and all we can do is wonder, What did they see? A wide-eye youngster eating popcorn at a circus? A jazz band in New Orleans?

No one will ever know. No one will know because he could never tell. He couldn’t even speak his name. And on the day he died no one had words to say. What do you say when you bury a life no one knew?

It’s easy to say this, but I wish I’d been there. I would have opened the Bible to the tenth chapter of the Gospel of John and read verse 3, “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.”

It’s not true that no one knew this man’s name. God did . . . and God does. And it’s wrong to say that this man never heard his name. Who knows how many times God spoke it to him through the years? In the silence. Through the dark. When we thought he couldn’t hear, who is to say he wasn’t hearing the only voice that matters?

The Good Shepherd knows each sheep by name. He’s not a cowboy, and we aren’t cattle. He doesn’t brand us, and we’re not on the way to the market. He guides, feeds, and anoints. And word has it that he won’t quit until we reach the homeland.

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