May 1, 2023 // Perspective
Shepherds and Sheep
We’ve reached the point in the Easter season when the liturgy presents Jesus Christ as the Good Shepherd, tending his flock with care. When I think about this, I usually picture a tender, pastoral image of a field of fluffy sheep watched over by a shepherd lazily resting in the shade of a tree. The familiar 23rd psalm presents just such a scene, telling us that “The Lord is my shepherd, / I shall not want. / In verdant pastures he gives me repose. / Beside restful waters he leads me; / he refreshes my soul.”
When you think about it, sheep play an important role in the history of salvation. In the story of Cain and Abel (Gen 4), it is Abel’s sacrifice of a lamb that God prefers to Cain’s grain offering — note that this is not, however, a divine dismissal of vegetables. Later in the book of Genesis, as Abraham prepares to sacrifice his son Isaac, God instead provides a ram for the sacrifice (Gen 22). Jacob, the son of Isaac, first meets his wife Rachel as she was watering her family’s sheep, a flock which later became part of her inheritance (Gen 30). And the greatest king of Israel, David, was called from the field where he was shepherding the family’s flocks to be anointed as the future king by the prophet Samuel (1 Sam 16). Israel’s prophets often compared God’s chosen people to a flock of sheep, promising the Almighty’s tender care and protection: “he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young” (Isa 40:11).
According to those who’ve worked with sheep, however, those fluffy puffballs are not always innocent, gentle, and carefree. In his essay, “Out Like a Lamb,” Andre Dubus describes his experience as a temporary sheepherder for a vacationing friend, where he discovered how difficult it is to tend a flock. The sheep would repeatedly break out of their protective pen, fall over cliffs, eat the vegetable garden, get eaten by wolves, and generally act with reckless abandon for their own safety. “Christ had called us his flock, his sheep; there were pictures of him holding a lamb in his arms. His face was tender and loving, and I grew up with a sense of those feelings, of being a source of them: we were sweet and lovable sheep. But after a few weeks in that New Hampshire house, I saw Christ’s analogy meant something entirely different. We were stupid helpless brutes, and without constant watching we would foolishly destroy ourselves.”
To my eyes, that’s actually pretty refreshing to read, as it fits with my own experience of the life of faith. I know my own tendencies, that I’m not always innocent and/or holy. I know that I need leading, prodding, and pulling to do what I ought to be doing, whether that be prayer or work. I need, in other words, a shepherd, who cares for me with tender attention. I know I’m not alone in needing this gentle guidance. And God, who knows what we need even before we ask, has not left us to our own devices, promising, “I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed” (Jer 23:4).
In Latin, the word for shepherd is “pastor,” which is related to “pascere (to feed).” In this word we can hear echoes of the “Paschal Sacrifice”, a term familiar from Holy Week, where it is used to describe the self-sacrifice of Christ Jesus that accomplished our salvation. A good shepherd both protects his flock, usually from themselves, and feeds them. We see this in our own pastors, who offer mercy in the Sacrament of Penance, saving us from ourselves, and feed us as they break open the Word of God and offer the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist, “the source and summit of the Christian life” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1324).
As a kid growing up in the 1980s, I loved watching “The Dukes of Hazzard” on Friday nights with my family. Each week, the main characters Bo and Luke Duke would inevitably get into some sort of shenanigans that would put them in conflict with the corrupt county commissioner and his bumbling sheriff. The Duke boys’ kindly Uncle Jesse would usually warn them of the pending danger, getting their attention via the two-way radio by calling, “Shepherd to Lost Sheep.” The show always ended with the boys safe at home, back among the sheepfold, and all was right with the world (at least until the next week’s episode), echoing St. Peter’s reminder that, “you had gone astray like sheep, but you have now returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls” (1 Pt 2:25).
I’ll bet that this may be the first time that “The Dukes of Hazzard” has been presented as an allegorical reference to Christ and the Good Shepherd!
One final note about shepherds and sheep: Let us, in this Easter season (and always), pray for our pastors, who have a great responsibility before God, and therefore have even greater need of God’s grace. As we enter into the Marian month of May, let us lift up our priests and bishop, asking that Our Lady intercede for them to be true shepherds after the heart of her Divine Son. That’s the least that we grateful sheep can do for the guardians of our souls.
Ken Hallenius is a syndicated radio host and podcaster living in South Bend. For more, visit blog.hallenius.org.
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