Spiritual Reflection – Shepherds
Shepherds and sheep have an enviable reputation in the Bible. Sheep are seen as mild animals, and lambs are proposed as spotless white symbols of innocence. Shepherds, for their part, are wise, diligent, and caring. The reality is somewhat different. Sheep are often stupid. In Jesus’ time, shepherds were often viewed with suspicion at the local level because their nomadic ways made them uncontrollable; they were at best nuisances, at worst criminals.
We find that Jesus was among those who idealised shepherds; it is clear that no real shepherd would leave the remainder of the flock unprotected while he went off in search of the stupid stray. It is not a commercially viable proposition to risk the whole flock for a single sheep. Furthermore, even if we accept the image, we have to note that carrying the strayed sheep back to the flock on his own shoulders was not a sign of affection: it was the most efficient way of rejoining the flock. Jesus used this impossible image to portray the extravagant and effective love that God has for all. God will seek out the lost and bring them back.
The Fourth Evangelist pushes the image further. He notes that there is a deep interpersonal connection between the shepherd and the sheep; he knows them, and they recognise and respond to his voice. Christ as shepherd is not merely one who exercises external control over the flock, but one who has a deep understanding of each of those entrusted to his care. He knew what was in their hearts—a proposition often illustrated in the stories of the Gospel tradition. Jesus leads his flock through connaturality—we follow him because he is one of us, like us in all things except sin.
But there is more—an even wilder assertion. So greatly does this shepherd care about the sheep that he is prepared to die in their place. No ordinary shepherd would willingly do this. We have passed beyond human affairs into a totally different world of values. The extravagance of divine love is such that surpasses our understanding. “Understand the love God has for us in that Christ died for us while we were still sinners.” Divine love far exceeds anything we call by that name: it is proactive, unconditional, intense, and all-embracing. We can catch only glimmers of its total extent.
Michael Casey, Balaam’s Donkey: Random Ruminations for Every Day of the Year (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2019), Location 6377 eBook edition.