Modern shepherds in the world

Few citizens of 21st-century megacities know much about caring for sheep. When they look for work, they don't scan the help-wanted ads for jobs herding sheep.

Aug 26, 2015

By David Gibsson
Few citizens of 21st-century megacities know much about caring for sheep. When they look for work, they don't scan the help-wanted ads for jobs herding sheep.

What do sheepherders actually do? Do they work during the day or at night, or both? Are they penalized if a sheep is lost or killed? What challenges does sheepherding entail?

It can seem as though Christianity makes an assumption when it comes to shepherds, namely that we and our contemporaries know something about the needs of sheep. Shepherds, after all, are mentioned somewhat frequently in the church's worship.

Are we expected to relate in rewarding ways to the lives and work of shepherds? In the end, one can assume, there must be something shepherds do that merits reflection and contemplation.

Allow me, then, to reintroduce a few of the shepherds best known among Christians, with the goal of asking whether we ever do what they do.

The shepherds who stunningly reappear annually in the church's liturgy at Christmas, surrounded by angels announcing the birth of Jesus, were "living in the fields," according to Luke's Gospel. If that sounds a little uncomfortable, the Gospel adds that they were "keeping the night watch over their flock" (2:8).

Their night watch rings a bell for me. Did you ever keep a night watch with a newborn infant who seemed to need you at every moment? If so, you know what real fatigue, commitment and love feel like.

The same is true of filling in at night for a friend who is the primary caregiver for a sick, aged parent, but who right now needs not so much to be "cared about" as to be "cared for." She has gone far too long without any respite.

Shepherding also comes into view in the Christian community whenever the parable of the lost sheep is proclaimed (Lk 15:1-8). The well-known figure central to this parable has 100 sheep but loses one. What does he do? He searches for the lost sheep until he finds it.

Upon finding the lost sheep, he hoists it onto "his shoulders with great joy." Then he invites friends and neighbors to celebrate with him.

The image of a shepherd bearing a sheep on his shoulders became popular in the church's early centuries. It was depicted frequently in the Roman catacombs, the underground burial places for early Christians.

For today's Christians, this is the image of someone who is happily ready to bear others' burdens, to serve without being served and to invest his or her finest strengths in supporting and caring for them.

The most compelling image of a shepherd in the Gospels may be the one found in Chapter 10 of the Gospel of John. He is called the Good Shepherd, and he clearly is a life-giver.

The Good Shepherd wants his "sheep" to "have life and have it more abundantly." He says, "I will lay down my life for the sheep" (10:10-11; 15).

Christians relate rather naturally to a shepherd who gives life to others. Moreover, I think there is a sense among Christians that it is not only possible for them to share life with others but that they ought to try to do this.

The question is: How is life given or shared?

A good shepherd shares life by sacrificing for others. It is a unique role, undoubtedly.

Still, it is not unusual for us to be called on to share life by sacrificing time or perhaps surrendering a goal that now seems barely significant in light of someone else's very important need. Families do this quite often.

Sacrificing for others is one way to share life. Doing what one can to give birth to hope in a suffering person and to give rise to a new appreciation for life is another way.

We may not know fully how life is shared by us with others, just as we do not know fully how God shares his life with us. Think, though, of a couple who fall in love.

Part of what makes this couple happy is their sense that life is shared between them through the trust they place in each other, through their unconditional love and through the depth of their mutual understanding.

Certainly, what people in love want for each other is "to have life and have it more abundantly." They are committed to each other's well-being.

The Good Shepherd who gives his life for others and the shepherd carrying a lamb on his shoulders generally are accepted in the Christian community as images of Christ. Furthermore, discussions of leadership in the church tend to focus strongly on these images of a shepherd.

There are leaders of many kinds in the church, however, and every Christian has the vocation to live as Christ, the shepherd, lived.

The gifts of the Good Shepherd are a treasure, but the treasure is not private. Aren't his gifts of life, care and support meant to be passed on by us to others?

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