One of the favorite images for God in the Old Testament is that of a “shepherd-king.” (Psalm 80:1:”Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead joseph like a flock! You who are enthroned upon the cherubim , shine forth”). We see that in our first reading today, and in our gospel we see Jesus, “sitting on the throne of his glory” and separating out sheep from goats, as a shepherd would typically do at the end of the day .
Why do the Sacred Scriptures use this image for God?
Why would Jesus use this image for himself?
And why does Jesus in John’s gospel describe himself as, “the good shepherd, whose sheep know his voice and who lays down his life for his sheep?” (John 10: 4, 14-15).
Why does Jesus call the leaders of his church, “shepherds?” (cf Matthew 10: 6; 18:12 -14).
To understand this, you have to understand the relationship between a good shepherd and his sheep, and that is shown to us in our first reading and our responsorial psalm today. I have to admit that, growing up as I did in the center of a big inner city like London, the closest I might come to sheep would be a couple of lamb chops on a plate! But I have been greatly helped by reading a book called, “A Modern Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23”, which happens to be our responsorial psalm today.
There I read, for instance, that a sheep really does know the voice of its shepherd, and will readily follow his call, but will not follow anyone else. They actually did an experiment some years ago, where a shepherd called to his sheep, and they immediately came to him. But then a really good mimic imitated the shepherd’s voice perfectly, yet the sheep would not go to him. Some instinct in them was able to tell the difference. We, who are called in the Bible, God’s flock (Psalm 95:7), should come to know Jesus so well that we can easily distinguish his voice speaking into our hearts from any other voice, especially the seductive voice of the devil, urging us to commit sin or choose a path which would be disastrous to us. Can we say that we are able to recognize the Lord’s voice in such a way, brothers and sisters? This only comes through constantly seeking to be in his presence, learning to know him and his voice (Trust games ).
For me, as a pastor, literally a “shepherd”, I also have to make sure I get close enough to my sheep that they can recognize my voice. And my smell. Pope Francis is always urging his priests to get so close to their sheep that they even have the “smell” of them on him. An interesting and compelling image, but one fully in line with the sheep and shepherd imagery in today’s readings.
Because the sheep know and recognize the voice (and smell ) of their own shepherd, they will follow him gladly, because they know, as our psalm today affirms, that with him they “shall not want,” i.e. they lack for nothing . When it gets up in the morning, a sheep does not worry himself where he is going to get food or accommodation for the evening, who is going to take care of his little ones, or anything like that. That is the shepherd’s job to figure all that out. All the sheep has to do is stick close to the shepherd and all his needs will be taken care of. Even if he were to wander off, he knows that the shepherd would come after him and find him and bring him back.
Of course, we know we do have responsibilities to do what we can to provide for ourselves and our families. But over and beyond that, we should have such a sense of trust in Jesus as our shepherd-king, that we know he will provide for us, especially in the moments of our deepest need.
As the shepherd makes his way to the next pasture land, the sheep following obediently behind him, he will stop occasionally and have his sheep line up in a semi-circle in front of him. Then he will call each sheep in turn by its name (yes the shepherd really does know the name of each of his sheep, as the Lord Jesus also knows each of and calls us, by name (“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I Have called you by your name,you are mine” (Isaiah 43: 1). The sheep will trot up to the shepherd, who will bow down to him, ruffle his hair, rub his ears,and whisper a few words of encouragement and kindness into those ears, while the sheep nuzzles the shepherd’s neck, they engage in a few moments of closeness together, bonding in their relationship together, before the shepherd sends him back to his place and calls up the next one. And this will go on throughout the day.
Imagine, Jesus wants to have those moments of closeness, of intimacy, of sharing , with us, and is always calling to us to spend that time together. But how often do we hear his voice, or recognize it, or pay any attention to it? How can we ever feel God is close to us, if we never spend time getting close to him?
Like the shepherd in our psalm today, the shepherd’s job is to lead his sheep along the right paths, bringing us to green pastures and places of, “still waters” for them to be able to refresh and restore themselves, while he keeps an eye out for any predator, human or animal prowling by. What are these green pastures and still waters for us, but moments spent in the presence of our Lord Jesus, places and times when we pray and read his Word, or watch spiritual programs on television or online, or read spiritual books?. They should be times of refreshing for us, also, when we learn to relax and rest back in the Lord’s arms, and experience him holding and hugging us and relieving us from the burdens and struggles of the day (me at lunchtimes in the park). Where we learn it is not all down to us alone to solve our problems, but his words of guidance and strength will restore us to peace and confidence.
In the land of Israel, there is actually a “valley of the shadow of death” and every shepherd knows it . It is a steep incline up a cliff and, though sheep are sure-footed animals, they can still trip and fall off, were it not for the fact that the shepherd is there, with his crook to catch the animal by the neck or stomach and haul it back. How many times have you and I, brothers and sisters, known our Lord’s saving action in our lives, hauling us back from sin or disaster, restoring us back to the “right path”?
At the end of the day, when the sheep arrive at their destination, before the shepherd lets them into the field to graze, he first goes through it with his crook, identifying and scooping up any poisonous plants, which he then piles up and sets fire to. Then he lets the sheep in to eat and as they eat , they watch their “enemies”, the poisonous plants, burning up, no longer able to harm them. And so the psalm goes: “You prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies.” At the end of our days on earth, the Lord Jesus, our shepherd –king will welcome us into the eternal pasture lands of heaven, where, we are told in the Book of Revelation:
“He will wipe away every tear from our eyes, death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the former things have passed away, and all will be made new.”Book of Revelation (21: 4-5)
And God will be in our very midst for all eternity.
While the sheep are grazing, the shepherd walks among them, making sure the stronger sheep do not try to bully and shoulder weaker sheep out of the way so they can get to the food supply first. He carries a bowl of water with him and invites each sheep to come and sink his head into the bowl, so the water overflows, drinking to its heart’s content, while the shepherd minutely searches for any scratches , bits of thorn, or wire in the face and neck of the sheep, and pours oil on any wounds for healing. “You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.” In our times of prayer and soaking in God’s presence, this is what Jesus is also doing, pouring the healing oil of his holy Spirit into our inner and outer wounds.
Finally, when the sheep lay down to sleep, they can rest totally secure, because in place of the sheep gate, the shepherd himself will lay down at the entrance of the sheepfold, and any predator, human or animal, will first have to get by him to attack his flock. Yes, this is the good shepherd who “lays down his life for his sheep”, just as Jesus did on the cross for us. So we will experience “goodness and mercy following us all the days of our life” and at the end of those days we, “shall dwell in the house of the Lord our whole life long.”
This, then, is the lifestyle of a good shepherd, and when we truly get how incredibly strong and close the relationship between each sheep and its shepherd really is, and know that Jesus uses that imagery to describe the kind of personal relationship he desires to have with each one of us, how could we refuse him? Isn’t that what, deep down and continuously, we desire for ourselves and those who are dear to us? So God promises in our first reading, to “seek the lost, bring back the strayed, bind up the injured, and strengthen the weak,” and, at the end of days, to “destroy the fat and the strong” who are only fat and strong because they have been abusing and stealing from the weaker sheep. Because God is a God of justice, as well as of mercy, even though, in his mercy, he will wait to the very last possible moment, to give everyone a chance to repent and turn back to him (cf 2 Peter 3:9).
That is why Jesus, in describing what kind of king he is, and what kind of kingdom he is preparing for us, uses the same imagery of a shepherd’s relationship to his flock. And why Jesus, in his gospel today, gives to each one of us, who are leaders, influencers, and shapers of others, in so many different ways, the responsibility of shepherds.
Are you being good or bad shepherds to your sheep, brothers and sisters?
Am I ?