Perhaps one of the most endearing images in popular religious art is that of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. Children immediately grasp this image, indentifying with the cute lamb held in Jesus’ loving arms. In fact, this image lends its name to a method of religious education called the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. Based on Montessori educational methods, it encourages children to learn and grow in their faith in ways that involve their whole selves. Urban—and urbane—adults sometimes have more of a struggle with this image, setting it aside, perhaps, for more sophisticated and rational understandings of their faith, but each year during the Easter season we find ourselves once more confronting this image and reflecting on our response.
Our adult minds, filled with a misplaced pride, sometimes reject the image of the Good Shepherd because we don’t want to think of ourselves as sheep. Sheep are not particularly bright animals. Placid, vulnerable to predators, their only real defense is flocking together in a large group. If the whole group strays from a safe pasture, they’re all lost. And an individual separated from the flock is easily picked off by a wolf or coyote. The more we know about sheep, the less attractive the image is. But in our heart of hearts, we know that this is exactly how we behave sometimes. When we feel threatened, we panic. We bunch together with like-minded people in the belief that our numbers alone will make our position right. We forget that we need God’s providential care and we think that we can go it alone—but we can’t. At the most difficult times in our lives, we know that we need someone to lean on, someone to watch over us. And no one can do that better than the God who knows and loves us in our folly as well as our finest moments. It’s no accident that the psalm most often read at funeral liturgies is Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” When it comes right down to it, we know with every fiber of our being that we need God.
Jesus the Good Shepherd is not the product of some fussy Victorian artwork. In John’s Gospel, part of which we hear today, Jesus himself offers an extended reflection on his statement, “I am the Good Shepherd.” This is an image with deep roots in the Hebrew Scriptures, which emerged, like the Gospels, from a rural, pastoral culture in which sheep and goats provided much of the food, clothing and shelter for the people. The prophets speak of God acting as a shepherd to the people. David, he greatest king in the Old Testament, was chosen while caring for flock and was often referred to as a shepherd king. And Jesus frames the metaphor in terms of a protective love, a shepherd who risks his own life for the life of the flock. The threat of predators is very real, both for sheep and for humans.
Being a shepherd is no task for the weak. A tiny lamb is cute and cuddly, but in a very short time that lamb is heavy, strong, stubborn and unwieldy. The shepherd must be strong enough to tend the sheep, at times setting it up on end for medication, hoof trimming and shearing. But the shepherd must also be gentle enough not to frighten the sheep into heart failure. Our God takes much the same pproach with us. And so we come to reflect on the Good Shepherd with both a childlike faith and an awareness of adult dangers. It is an image of comfort, but an image of strong comfort. The words of St. Francis deSales come to mind: “There is nothing so strong as real gentleness, and nothing so gentle as real strength.”
Finally, for a contemporary look at sheep and shepherds, you might want to visit The Yeoman Farmer. I can’t have my own sheep at this time, but I’m living vicariously this year through his descriptions and pictures of his icelandic sheep.