The Good Shepherd, Who Never Leaves His Flock

Has any one of you ever been a shepherd? or even seen one? Do shepherds exist in contemporary North America? Nevertheless, we know instinctively that when Jesus refers to himself as the good shepherd, he is expressing his loving concern for his “flock,” i.e., his followers. You might well ask, therefore, why he did not simply say something like this: “I have a loving concern for each one of you.” The answer to this question takes us to the heart of our religion, in that it reminds us of the method of God’s revelation to his people. For the fact is that he addressed a particular person at a particular time and place; and the people so addressed were, like Abraham, shepherds, who moved from place to place with their herds, that could include goats and cattle as well as sheep; but no pigs—they are too unruly and, for this reason, perhaps, were declared unclean. So you see: in order to address Abraham and entrust him with the formation of the chosen people, God had to use human language and refer to experiences that Abraham knew. Thus it was that shepherds and shepherding provided the metaphors God used to reveal something about himself—“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want”[1]—and about the Messiah—“He was led like a lamb to the slaughter.”[2] It’s amazing how widespread is the use of this image. David, as the shepherd king, for example, became a personification of the Messiah: “I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd.”[3]

I’ve been trying to come up with a contemporary parallel to the good shepherd, to identify some element of our society that could convey more readily to us today what the image of the shepherd meant to the ancient Hebrews and the early Christians. It’s not easy, for there seems to be nothing in politics or other fields that would serve the purpose. I cannot imagine praying to “Jesus, the good prime minister” or “the good MP.” Nor are sports much use in this regard. Could you imagine Jesus as “the good coach” or “the good referee”? It’s worse when we consider industry or entertainment, for I can hardly picture Jesus as chairman of the board or as foreman on the factory floor, much less as Jesus as the winner of an Oscar for acting or of a Juno for singing. It may well be, then, that there is no modern equivalent to the good shepherd; and I think I know why. Being a shepherd was a full-time occupation; he does nothing but watch over his flock, including when he is eating or when he is sleeping; for even at those times he maintains an awareness of the condition of the flock and is immediately alert to the situation should something go wrong. All the other occupations, laudable as they may be at best, are part-time. The entertainer, the MP, the businessman, they all go home and put aside pre-occupations about their work. But the shepherd is present twenty-four/seven, if I may use an anachronism in referring to a time when there were no clocks.

It is this aspect of shepherding that makes it particularly apt as an image of God’s care for his people. For God, too, is always on the job, always available to listen to our prayers and attend to our needs. The mystery of divine providence is this: that God’s attention is directed to me as intensely as if I were the only person alive now, or who ever had existed, or ever will. Jesus himself confirms this fact: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father’s will. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered.”[4] For God is totally present everywhere active in preserving creation in existence, just as the Spirit of Jesus is fully present in each and every Christian at all times and places. How rich and reassuring, then, are the words we heard a moment ago as the Gospel was read: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”[5]

[1] Ps 22/23,1.

[2] Is 53.7.

[3] Ez 34.23.

[4] Lk 12.6-7

[5] Jn 10.14.