Shepherds populate the Scriptures from Genesis to Jesus. Even the last book of the Bible, Revelation, speaks of the “Lamb that seemed to have been slain” (Rv 5:6). Abel, Adam’s son, was a shepherd (Gn 4:3). Abraham, Isaac and Jacob kept flocks. Moses worked as a shepherd before he led the people of Israel. King David began his life tending his father’s flocks.
Sheep are mentioned hundreds of times in the Bible, more than any other animal. But sheep do not have the best PR image. Imagine a group of kindergartners choosing which animal they’d like to be in a school play about Noah’s ark. Sheep would probably come way down on the list, after lion, horse, tiger and even shark, dragon and unicorn. Who is really impressed with being a sheep?
Yet that is the image the Lord uses to define his followers: “There will be one flock and one shepherd.” What’s so great about sheep, that God so favors them?
Well, sheep’s number one characteristic is that they flock – they group together, stay together and follow the leader well. In fact, they might follow too well. For example, in 2005, BBC News reported that 400 sheep in eastern Turkey died after jumping off a cliff. (Another 1100 survived because the first 400 cushioned their fall.)
It’s not that sheep are dumb, in fact they seem to be as intelligent as any other farm animal. But sheep are so programmed to follow and stay together that they can’t do anything else. It usually helps them – a predator will not attack a huge flock, preferring to pick off stragglers. Sheep are so tuned to flock that they will become restless and unable to eat if they do not see other sheep.
This flocking instinct makes them easy to herd and very social. And since sheep have very good hearing, sheep can follow one shepherd easily. In fact, sheep recognize their shepherds by voice, which is what the Lord meant when he said, “I know mine and mine know me.” In the communal pastures and sheepfolds of Israel (both ancient and modern), flocks that comingle overnight will sort themselves out to follow their own shepherd in the morning.
Last fall, in an address on Psalm 23, Pope Benedict XVI noted that this characteristic of sheep “calls to mind an atmosphere of trust, intimacy and tenderness: the shepherd knows each one of his sheep and calls them by name; and they follow him because they recognize him and trust in him.”
In turn, the shepherd protects the sheep, leading them to water, green pastures and tending their wounds. He uses his staff and his sling to keep away predators. In return, the sheep provide the shepherd with wool for garments, skins for leather, and milk and meat for food.
This is the image of the sheep and their shepherd we see in the Old Testament, from Abel to King David. Sheep — and their cousins, goats — was a sign of wealth, peace and prosperity. It was an image the disciples understood when Jesus used it in his parables.
However, God meant to take the relationship even further, as Blessed John Paul II noted on Good Shepherd Sunday in 1998: “In his preaching,” the late pope said, “Jesus refers to this image but introduces a completely new element: the shepherd is the one who lays down his life for his sheep (cf. Jn 10:11-18). He attributes this trait to the Good Shepherd, distinguishing him from the hireling. … Indeed, he presents himself as the prototype of the Good Shepherd who is able to give his life for his flock.”
As we continue on in our Easter season journey, which is also the season of First Communion celebrations, we see how the image of the Good Shepherd deepens our understanding of the Eucharist.
Blessed John Paul noted that the Eucharist is where “the Good Shepherd makes his sacrificial love for all constantly present.”
Not only does the shepherd guide the sheep, tend the sheep and protect the sheep, the Good Shepherd leads the sheep and feeds them with his own body and blood.
As Pope Benedict said, the Good Shepherd “is the generous host who welcomes us and rescues us from our enemies, preparing for us the table of his body and his blood and the definitive table of the messianic banquet in Heaven.”
A hireling might run off in the face of a predator — like our kindergarteners’ lions or dragons – but Jesus will not run off. If we are lost — the Good Shepherd will leave the 99 sheep and come to find us. And Jesus, unlike the leader sheep in eastern Turkey, will not let us rush off a cliff. He will stand between us and the rocky cliffs — including the rock of Calvary.
So, like any flock of sheep, all we have to do is what sheep do best: stay together, be gentle, follow the leader, trust the shepherd and listen for his voice.
Sources: “Mercer Dictionary of the Bible”; “The Collegeville Bible Commentary”; “Smith’s Bible Dictionary”; John Paul II’s homily for May 3, 1998 and Benedict XVI’s general audience for Oct. 5, 2011, at vatican.va.